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AGAINST THE GRAIN

Trump’s Presidency Is in Peril

The president needs to maintain his rock-solid support from Republican voters to avoid impeachment. A new poll and fresh GOP defections show cracks with his base.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Oct. 8, 2019, 12:29 p.m.

In January 2018, I wrote a column about the three developments that needed to happen for President Trump to face a serious threat of impeachment and removal from office. Written right after Michael Wolff’s book documenting utter chaos in the Trump White House and less than a year after Trump’s inauguration, the piece was intended as a political reality check to Democrats. It argued that until Democrats could muster enough public support for their argument that Trump should be removed from office, any such effort would fail—and that up to that point, Democrats weren’t close to making a persuasive case to the American people.

The preconditions I laid out before last year’s midterms were straightforward. One, Democrats first needed to win back the House to initiate public hearings. Second, Trump’s job-approval rating would need to hit below 70 percent among Republicans—a Mendoza line of sorts that would create enough space for some elected GOP officials to break from the administration. Third, there would need to be new information that wasn’t already known at the time.

For a long while, Democrats met only one of the preconditions: taking back the House. They built a broad political coalition against Trump in the midterms but lacked any mandate to remove him from office. Trump’s support with his base was overwhelming, nearing 90 percent in most polls. And many of the damning details about Trump’s behavior in office were already known and published by the time Wolff’s book hit. Robert Mueller’s exhaustive report was damning to Trump but failed to document much new material that the American public wasn’t aware of.

In two quick weeks, that has all changed dramatically. With daily blockbuster revelations about the Trump administration’s withholding critical aid to Ukraine for political reasons, the second of three preconditions has been met. This scandal is resonating with the public like few other previous Trump scandals. Already, polls show a majority of Americans support an impeachment inquiry, with a plurality supporting the president’s removal from office.

There’s room for those impeachment numbers to grow, as voters who disapprove of his conduct with Ukraine still exceed those who support impeachment proceedings. There’s no doubt that the gusher of damning developments has changed the entire calculus of pursuing Trump’s impeachment.

The third precondition is now the most critical one for Trump to maintain: his unyielding support with Republican voters. For his entire presidency, Trump has held cult-like support with his base. His job approval among his own party’s voters has been consistently higher than any other president was able to muster.

And while Trump is holding firm with his hardcore base, there’s new evidence that he may be losing slavish support from other Republicans, who have also stuck with him throughout. A new Washington Post poll found 28 percent of Republicans supporting the impeachment inquiry, with even 18 percent of Republicans backing his removal from office. Only 69 percent of Republicans oppose the Democrats’ impeachment inquiries—below that pivotal Mendoza line of 70 percent. It’s possible that this poll’s findings are an outlier, but it’s very plausible it’s at the leading edge of a troubling trend.

Trump also doesn’t seem to recognize how critical it is for his political survival to maintain that high base of Republican support. In the midst of the worsening scandal, he abruptly announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, in place to counter the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. That decision sparked near-universal outrage from his typically reliable GOP allies, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham. It threatens to weaken support from Republican voters, whose hawkish tendencies have outlasted the Trump presidency. Trump is alienating his most crucial Senate allies at the worst possible time.

The actions of leading Republican officials toward Trump’s latest behavior reflect the worsening political environment. Some Republicans are choosing not to take him seriously or literally. A handful of loyalists have mimicked several of Trump’s favored conspiracy theories. But more significantly, a few Republican senators are speaking out against the president’s conduct toward Ukraine in office—even if they’re saying he doesn’t deserve to be impeached.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah has been the most outspoken Republican against Trump’s behavior. But his criticism has been joined by three other Republican senators in the last few days.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, representing a state Trump carried comfortably, said that it was inappropriate for Trump to solicit dirt on Hunter Biden from Ukraine or China. After saying she wouldn’t prejudge evidence in the run-up to a possible Senate impeachment trial, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has nonetheless criticized Trump twice—for his attack on the whistle-blower and for calling on China to investigate a political rival. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, facing a Republican primary next year, also condemned Trump’s call for China to investigate Biden’s son.

The trend lines for Trump are not encouraging. If even a small number of Republicans start to speak out—building cracks in the president's solid GOP wall of support—it’s easy to see how things crater quickly. Soft Trump supporters who follow cues from their party leaders could defect. The political antibodies protecting him from impeachment have already dissipated in record speed.

At the beginning of the scandal, many pundits thought Democrats were facing more political risk in calling for an impeachment inquiry. Just two weeks later, it’s clear that Trump’s presidency is in peril.

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