With the publication of a scathing tell-all book portraying President Trump as a hopeless buffoon and fresh evidence that the president attempted to obstruct the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, the I-word is again being talked about in Washington. Even the president’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, publicly told author Michael Wolff that it was likely—with 67 percent odds—that Trump would either be impeached or forced to resign before his first term is up.
But what many Trump haters fail to appreciate is that there needs to be political buy-in from voters that a duly-elected president should be removed from office. We’re not close to that point yet—or at least weren’t before details about the abject dysfunction of the first months of the Trump presidency were published. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just before the December holidays found that 41 percent of Americans supported impeaching Trump, with 54 percent opposed. A quarter of Democrats opposed impeachment, and a 53 percent majority of independents don’t want Trump removed from office. Remember: 61 percent of Americans didn’t think Trump was qualified to be president in exit polling—on the same day he was elected commander in chief of the United States.
The fear of an impeachment backlash is why so many Democratic strategists have warned their candidates to avoid talking about Trump’s fitness for office. They know their base is already juiced up with anti-Trump resentment and doesn’t need any more prodding from their candidates.
But with 2018 now upon us, the political winds could shift in a different direction. Robert Mueller and his team are tracking leads that could implicate Trump or close associates in illegal behavior. The president is acting unglued in the first week of the new year, threatening to sue his former close adviser and a book publisher, while engaging in a nerve-wracking nuclear-charged war of words with North Korea’s maniacal leader. Bannon himself is intimating sinister ties between Trump Inc. and Russia, a shift from his argument when he was working at the White House.
Many Trump critics fail to appreciate the political component to impeachment, even as they try to find creative legal remedies to remove the president from office. From this column’s vantage point, there must be certain political preconditions in place before anyone should take that possibility seriously.
Here is what needs to happen for impeachment to become a reality:
1. Democrats need to take back the House. Voters would have to punish Republicans at the ballot box in 2018, and Republican officeholders would need to recognize that the benefits of sticking with Trump are fleeting.
Enough Republicans will have to admit that they’ve hit rock-bottom with Trump—conceding that being in the minority would foreclose any possibility of a substantive policy agenda getting through Congress. And Democrats would have to build a coalition of their own members and enough Trump-skeptical Republicans to break loose.
The current political reality check: It would take extraordinary circumstances for Republicans to initiate impeachment of a president in their own party. And while some principled commentators (like the Atlantic’s James Fallows) consider that a moral stain on the entire GOP, the reality is that any such move would be political suicide. It’s why serious Democrats, like Sen. Brian Schatz, understand that they’d have to make major legislative concessions if they wanted the possibility of buy-in from Republicans against Trump. “We’re going to need a temporary alliance of progressives and conservatives to save the country, and then we can get back to fighting over the size and scope of the government,” Schatz told The Washington Post back in August.
Many fail to appreciate the exceptional degree to which some elected Republicans have held Trump’s feet to the fire—including such actions as imposing sanctions on Russia against his will, giving up political careers to question Trump’s fitness for office, and raising red flags about the administration’s foreign policy. But leading an impeachment charge would mean that nearly every Republican in office would face a fate like Sen. Jeff Flake. Flouting the will of your constituents, frankly, is just as destabilizing as having a weakened executive branch.
But if Democrats take back the House and initiate public hearings, while more damning details come out from the Mueller investigation, it’s not hard to envision a rump of the Republican Party breaking ranks with Trump. After all, that’s what happened during Watergate: Democrats held both branches of Congress and relied on a prominent minority of GOP defectors to force Richard Nixon’s resignation.
2. Trump’s job approval rating with Republicans needs to dip around 70 percent (or lower). Amid all the White House chaos, Trump’s support with rank-and-file Republicans has remained remarkably resilient. Even after the low points of his first year—the reaction to Charlottesville, his feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions—he’s kept his partisan score above the Mendoza line. With the year closing with a major legislative accomplishment and items on the conservative wish list achieved, the president’s support with the base looked to be rock-solid heading into 2018.
But things can change quickly in Trump World. Bannon’s vitriolic indictment of his former boss could deprive the president of oxygen from that populist-nationalist base that his chief strategist inculcated. The economy could lose steam, and alienate Trump supporters mainly satisfied with the country’s healthy trajectory. Trump’s public feuding with North Korea could frighten enough Republicans to cut bait.
It’s hard to see Trump coming close to losing a majority of the Republican base. Right now, taking on Trump is a political death wish for most Republicans. But if a critical mass of party regulars begins to have doubts, it would create the pretext for enough elected officials to break ranks.
3. There needs to be a bombshell from the Mueller investigation. Mueller is conducting a meticulous investigation of all facets of the Trump campaign and presidency. We’ll likely learn a lot more about where it’s all leading in the coming year. If, as Bannon suggested, Trump became financially compromised over past dealings with Russia, bet on Mueller’s team tracking down the trail of financial transactions. If Trump was actually more aware of his team’s Russia conversations than he’s publicly letting on, expect nervous witnesses to spill the beans to avoid their own legal troubles.
On the other hand, if Team Trump’s meetings with Russian representatives was borne out of incompetence, if Mueller comes up empty-handed on his financial investigations, and if no smoking gun emerges tying the president to Russian malfeasance, it’s hard to see how Republicans will change their minds about the president. That would make impeachment a much more remote possibility.