Ultimately, it will be a political test as to whether the Trump presidency survives the Mueller probe results.
The Constitutional test for impeachment and removal of a president is commission of acts of either “….Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” As I wrote in my InsiderNJ column of May 16, 2017, the definition of what consitutes a “high Crime and Misdemeanor” is now deemed to be an act of abuse of power destructive of public faith in the integrity of the executive.
Obviously, the judgment of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate regarding impeachment and removal will be highly affected by the political context, namely the party loyalty of the members and the state of public approval or disapproval of the presidency of Donald Trump. If the Mueller report alleges that he has committed impeachable offenses, it will take a high degree of public disapproval of the Trump presidency for Republican Representatives and Senators to vote for his impeachment and removal.
The question is whether Trump’s approval ratings, although net negative, can remain high enough to prevent Republican House and Senate defections. The Democrats are highly likely to gain control of the House of Representatives in the November, 2018 elections. Only a House majority will be needed for the impeachment of Trump. Shift of House control to the Democrats in the 2018 election will vastly increase this prospect.
The Senate is another matter. Trump can only be removed from office if 67 Senators vote to do so. Regardless of which party gains control of the Senate in 2018, it will take the defection of at least 15 Republican Senators to oust him. This will only happen if Trump’s aporoval ratings fall so low as to mortally endanger the electoral survival of these senators.
History provides a guide as to how foreign and domestic developments affect the likelihood of survival of a scandal-plagued president. In the case of Richard Nixon, foreign policy successes did nothing to prevent rising Congressional support for his impeachment during Watergate. In the case of Bill Clinton, the continuing healthy economy was a major factor in his success in preventing even a single Democratic House or Senate defection.
As the Watergate scandal began to explode during the late spring and ealy summer of 1973, Richard Nixon, after implementing a final withrawal from Vietnam in January, achieved a number of agreements with the former Soviet Union pursuant to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). In October, 1973, he stood by Israel during the Yom Kippur war and brokered a ceasefire at the end of the conflict. He also made a triumphal tour of Egypt and Israel during the spring of 1974. None of these foreign policy successes prevented the inexorable march towards the continued Nixon downfall in the polls and his ultimate resignation in August, 1974. It is doubtful that positive foreign developments will significantly boost Trump’s approval numbers.
Economic developments have much more impact on a president’s approval ratings than international events. The continuing healthy economy was the major reason that Bill Clinton’s job performance approval ratings never declined during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Although the Republicans retained Congressional control in the 1998 elections, they were unable to remove Clinton from office. The House impeached him in December, 1998, but the Senate failed to remove him from office in 1999. While Clinton’s personal behavior approval rating declined until he left office in January, 2001, his job performance approval numbers remained high.
Trump hopes that a healthy economy will enable him to achieve high job performance approval numbers. The economy, however, is a mixed bag for him. He is like a baseball player who came into the game to pinch run at third base and thought he hit a triple. He inherited a growing healthy economy from Obama, and the best that can be said for Trump is that he did nothing to obstruct it – although his tariff policy does have the potential to do damage. As for his tax cuts, it is too early to judge their impact.
What is undeniable is the fact that the current favorable economy has completely failed to boost Trump’s job performance approval ratings, which are, in a word, horrific. This is attributable to the fact that a substantial majority of Americans view Donald Trump as a loathsome individual of contemptible ethics and moral character.
The net negative numbers in the recent polls on Trump’s job approval tell a stark story: Gallup, -9; Reuters/Ipsos, -8; Economist/YouGov, -8; CBS News, -15; CNN,-7; IBD/TIPP, -18; Pew, -12. The perceptions Americans have of Trump’s character far outweigh any positive economic news. Trump’s approval numbers at this point in his administration are the lowest of any president in modern American history.
Yet the most telling news comes from the outlier Rasmussen Poll, the only poll which often has Trump in positive approval territory. He loves to quote this poll. In fact, as of April 15, 2018, Rasmussen had Trump in positive job performance approval territory, 50-49. The most recent number, reported as of May 14, 2018 gives Trump a net negative job performance rating of -5, 47-52.
I attribute this major Trump Rasmussen decline to the recent White House imbroglio regarding Trump White House staffer Kelly Sadler’s insult of John McCain and the failure of the Trump White House, at the very least, to apologize for her insult, and even more appropriately, to fire her. The Trump disparagement of John McCain, a patriotic heroic American of unsurpassed physical and moral courage and impeccable integrity and ethics, reveals the aspect of the Trump character Americans find most offensive: Donald Trump is a president who has consistently repudiated those conventions that hold us together as a society: Civility, reverence for patriotism, and utmost respect for truth.
As long as Americans perceive Donald Trump in the light of his repulsive smearing of John McCain, no amount of good national or international news will shield him from the lengthening shadow of the Mueller investigation. The only question remaining will be whether a sufficient number of Republican Senators will defect to remove him from office.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.
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