Last January, I wrote a column outlining three critical preconditions for anyone to take the prospect of President Trump’s impeachment seriously. The piece argued that impeachment is fundamentally a political process and that until public opinion shifted enough to break Washington’s permanent state of partisan gridlock, it would take more than a steady flow of damning portrayals of Trump administration dysfunction and corruption to do lasting damage.
But several recent developments have shifted the political dynamic to the point where the prospect of Trump’s removal from office isn’t so far-fetched anymore. Democrats now control the House, allowing them to launch impeachment proceedings. The latest wave of revelations—from news that Trump concealed details of his meetings with Vladimir Putin to widespread FBI concerns that Trump was potentially compromised by Russia—threaten to soften Trump’s support from within the party.
Thursday’s explosive BuzzFeed report that Trump ordered Michael Cohen to lie before Congress about Trump’s business dealings with Moscow is a development that suggests Trump’s strange unwillingness to criticize Russia was born out of malice, not reckless incompetence. As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake writes, it’s a bit of reporting that’s “so cut-and-dried that even Republicans would be hard-pressed not to consider impeachment.” (On Friday evening the Office of the Special Counsel issued an unusual statement disputing the BuzzFeed story, though the news outlet claimed it stood by its reporting.)
That means two of the three political preconditions for impeachment have already been met or largely met (Democrats retaking the House and a bombshell from the Mueller investigation). The third precondition that’s left: whether enough Republican voters defect from the president as legal pressure mounts.
Trump’s ability to maintain support with his base has been a face-saving feature of his administration since Day One. The latest batch of national polls finds Trump with still-solid approval ratings among registered Republicans. His support from Republicans ranges from 81 percent (CNN) to 83 percent (PBS/NPR/Marist) to 86 percent (Quinnipiac), showing some slight erosion but nothing too significant yet.
Yet there are also some fresh signs of GOP defections from once-stalwart supporters that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Eleven Republican senators broke with the White House in an attempt to overturn the administration’s lifting of sanctions against a Russian oligarch allied with Putin. The list of defectors didn’t just include the usual suspects (Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse), but some of Trump’s most reliable allies like Tom Cotton and Steve Daines. Newly elected Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who assiduously tied himself to Trump at every opportunity during the campaign, broke with the president on one of his first key votes.
To be sure, this one vote on Russia doesn’t mean everything’s changed in Washington. After all, Russia hawks like Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham stuck with the administration on the issue. But it also shows that there’s lessening fear of Trump’s wrath among Republicans, especially those from the deeply conservative states where the risk of GOP backlash would be greatest.
Another overlooked nugget: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s apparent interest in leaving a plum job as the nation’s top diplomat to head back to Congress as a Senate candidate from Kansas. On its surface, the story is about Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looking to prevent an ugly primary in Kansas from hurting the GOP’s Senate prospects. Dig deeper, however, and it’s about one of Trump’s most trusted advisers looking for a face-saving exit ramp out of a looming disaster.
Going from Foggy Bottom to the Senate is an unmistakable demotion. Members of Congress dream about being secretary of State, not the other way around. But if Pompeo fears that things are about to get ugly in Washington, leaving to run for a fairly safe Senate seat back home would make a lot more sense.
These are the type of leading indicators that Trump’s rock-solid support within the Republican Party isn’t permanent. All it would take is a small number of partisans—around the 31 percent of Republicans who aren’t entirely committed to supporting Trump’s reelection—to break from the president for all hell to break loose. The bar is awfully high for them to register disapproval, but a damning Mueller report spelling out unsavory ties between Trump and Russia would probably do the political trick.
The most logical explanation for why Trump isn’t budging on the government shutdown despite slowly bleeding support is that he views the Republican base as the last line of defense against the growing possibility of impeachment proceedings. It’s still awfully hard to see 67 senators (including at least 20 Republicans) voting to remove a president of their own party from office. But as the lines of Trump’s political defense start to dissipate, the White House should be very worried about how quickly things can fall apart.