Against the Grain

The Week That Could Break Trump’s Presidency

The president has consistently been able to count on widespread partisan support. But as the Mueller investigation closes in and Trump’s erratic behavior worsens, the fate of his presidency is on the line.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
April 13, 2018, 3:45 p.m.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s sudden retirement announcement this week has been widely interpreted (including by this columnist) as a sign that Trumpism has fully overtaken supply-side conservatism as the defining force within the Republican Party. But there’s another plausible interpretation of the timing of Ryan’s departure: He’s part of a growing number of Republicans who worry the bottom is about to fall out politically for Trump—to the point where the president could end up losing a critical mass of partisan backers at the worst possible time.

Stop to consider just some of the White House craziness this week: Trump’s publicly tweeted declaration announcing plans to bomb Syria over its use of chemical weapons alarmed his supporters and critics alike for its impulsiveness. Trump’s whiplash-inducing shifts on trade policy are confusing both free traders and protectionists. Ousted FBI Director James Comey is dishing unflattering details about experiences with Trump with his new tell-all book. Robert Mueller’s investigation looks like it’s getting closer to Trump with the raid targeting his personal attorney’s records. And Trump is reportedly preparing to fire both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as part of a plan to disrupt Mueller from proceeding with his task.

It’s easy to assume that the polarized political dynamic of the last year will persist, with Republicans continuing to maintain their support of the president. After all, Trump’s job approval has barely budged despite the internal turmoil, hovering around 40 percent. Most significantly, his support among Republicans is locked in well above 80 percent. Turn on cable news and it’s easy to find shameless Trump defenders willing to defend the president at all costs.

But there are signs that the growing dysfunction within the White House could spin out of control. If Trump tries to prevent Mueller from finishing his investigation, there’s plenty of evidence that he’d lose support even from some loyalists. It’s no coincidence that typically supportive senators, ranging from Iowa’s Chuck Grassley to Texas’s John Cornyn, have been publicly warning the administration of the political consequences. As Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina put it: “It would be the beginning of the end of his presidency.”

Even if GOP senators wilt under pressure, some of their voters won’t necessarily follow suit. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that while partisan support for Trump is strong (and antipathy for Comey is widespread), a sizable share of Republicans want Mueller’s investigation to continue apace. The survey shows that 41 percent of Republicans want Mueller to continue his investigation into possible collusion with Russia and 34 percent support him investigating the president’s business activities. Those defections aren’t a majority of Republican voters, but they are significant enough to get sufficient GOP lawmakers to break against the president to make him nervous. If Democrats retake control of the House in 2019, impeachment will go from the imaginations of the left-wing resistance to the legislative mainstream.

Trump could always rely on the prospect of passing a conservative agenda to keep wayward Republicans in line, but that dynamic is changing as well. Republicans got their tax cut, but the odds of other major legislation moving through Congress are tiny. Party operatives privately sound resigned to losing the House, with all the attention now focused on holding a narrow majority in the Senate. Trump’s rants on Russia, American engagement in the Middle East, and the ills of free trade often sound indistinguishable from the views of true-blue progressives. The fleeting short-term benefits of sticking with Trump could soon be overwhelmed by longer-term problems out of their control.

Already, 39 House Republicans have announced their retirement—the second-largest number of House departures from any party since 1930—with the possibility of a few more members following suit before all states’ filing deadlines arrive. It’s as clear a vote of no confidence in Trump as it gets. Given what’s happened over the past 15 months, it’s logical to expect the incoming roster of Republican lawmakers to reflect Trump’s no-holds-barred style and populist substance.

But one thing I’ve learned in the Trump era is that conventional wisdom changes—fast. If Trump tries to halt the Mueller investigation and acts more and more as if he’s guilty of serious misconduct, all bets are off on the GOP’s future. The Reagan iteration of the GOP is increasingly becoming little more than a subject for partisan nostalgia, but there’s no guarantee that Trump will be defining the party’s future either.

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