By any metric, Trump is in trouble.
But a presidency is not in good shape when the best spin on the new poll is “It’s an outlier! Only 53 percent of the country thinks the president is terrible.” The poll is especially ugly for Republicans with midterms looming in two months.
FiveThirtyEight’s forecast for the midterms puts the likelihood of Democrats taking the House at more than 70 percent. Their chances of taking the Senate are lower, but Republicans are hardly a lock despite a very favorable map for them. And if Democrats manage to eke out a majority in both houses of Congress, here is the poll’s really bad news for Trump: Half the country wants him impeached.
To put that in perspective: In January 1974, well into the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s poll numbers on impeachment were better than President Trump’s are now. Earlier, less disastrous polls for Trump still showed him veering dangerously close to what we might call “the Nixon ceiling.”
Most worrying for Trump is that three-quarters of Democrats say they want Congress to impeach him. If Democrats gain control, they will be under immense pressure from their base to deliver.
That doesn’t mean they’ll do it. It takes a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate to actually remove a president from office. The best that Democrats can possibly manage in 2018 is a narrow majority; they would need more than a handful of Republican senators to support removal. The leaders of a Democrat-controlled House might well decide they’d rather not force their Senate brethren to take a hard and futile vote.
But as Republicans found in the 1990s, these things have a way of taking on unexpected momentum. A former Republican congressional staffer who was close to that process tells me that the day after the bruising 1998 midterms, Newt Gingrich — who would shortly step down as House speaker — said, “impeachment is over, that’s one thing the election clearly meant.” Five weeks later, with Gingrich out of the way, House Republicans impeached Bill Clinton. Then he was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate.
“The activist base of the party was committed to the idea, and that made it impossible for the elected officials to change course,” the former staffer says, “even though they knew impeachment wasn’t what the broader public wanted.”
It’s all too easy to imagine a similar scenario for Democrats intent on impeaching Trump as they come up short looking for Republicans to help them make it across the finish line. But it’s not entirely impossible to picture a few Republicans going along. If Democrats do manage to start impeachment hearings, it would be because — unlike Republicans in 1998 — they’d be coming off a huge midterm win. Public support for impeaching Trump, even taking into account his more favorable polls, would be higher than it ever was for impeaching Clinton.
Trump is in a very unusual situation for an American president. Members of his die-hard base are loyal, but at his peak they were barely a plurality of the party. The rest of his support is purely expedient, interested in getting judges appointed and keeping Democrats out of power. Republicans in Congress are loyal, for now, but only because they’re afraid of his voters.
But by the time Trump faced a Senate trial, that would mean the political calculus had shifted radically. He would have cost them the Congress; there would be no hope of more judges; the 2020 election would seem already lost. And he’d have no reservoir of goodwill in the party, for at every turn he has made a point of attacking and humiliating any Republican he deemed insufficiently obsequious. Just how long will the Coalition of the Unwilling stand by a president who was never really their man?
But even if Republicans hold the party line, what Trump faces in this scenario is bad enough: a public trial that he can’t avoid by firing the investigators, nor distract from with more Twitter blasts. One senses that public humiliation, especially at the hands of an establishment that has always looked down on him, is the thing that Trump fears most. Though far from certain, that humiliation is growing more likely.
Yes, the president is clearly in trouble. But does Trump, hunkered down with deferential staffers and screens blaring Fox News, realize it? Or might he learn it only when Congress calls him to account — and he finds no one standing behind him?