President Trump suffered the kind of body blows this week that would have felled any other politician.
Former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman revealed she had taped conversations with other senior officials, including in the highly secure Situation Room where cellphones aren’t allowed. She released a tape proving that Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, had offered her a $15,000-a-month job, financed by campaign donors, in an unsuccessful bid to buy her silence. She also claimed, so far without proof, that there was a tape of Trump using the n-word to describe African Americans and that the president had advance knowledge of the stolen emails released by Russian intelligence via WikiLeaks.
Trump added to the damage by lashing out on Twitter. He called Manigault Newman “a crazed, crying lowlife,” said he had only hired her “because she only said GREAT things about me,” and praised his chief of staff “for quickly firing that dog!” This led to well-justified charges that Trump’s words were, at best, unpresidential and, at worst, racist and sexist.
This was also the week when hundreds of newspapers published editorials denouncing Trump as a threat to the First Amendment.
And as if that weren’t enough: After Trump vindictively revoked former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance, Brennan hit back in a New York Times op-ed, writing that Trump’s denials of collusion with Russia are “hogwash.” The charge was all the more powerful because Brennan was in office during the 2016 campaign, and he received briefings from European intelligence services that are said to have intercepted communications between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
Trump’s attempt to silence Brennan provoked a powerful backlash from normally apolitical intelligence and military veterans. Retired Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, who oversaw the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote a Post op-ed comparing Trump’s tactics to those of Joseph McCarthy, while a group of 12 senior former intelligence officials who served under both Republicans and Democrats signed a letter of protest against Trump’s “inappropriate and deeply regrettable” act.
Pow! Wham! Ka-pow! Any other president would have been knocked out. But for Trump, it was just another ordinary week. He has been so beaten down for so long that it’s hard to see any visible damage from these additional blows. No matter how bad it gets, his approval rating never seems to fall far below 40 percent. (He’s currently at 42 percent approval in the FiveThirtyEight poll of polls.) It is thus easy to say that none of this matters. Easy — and wrong. Previous presidents who were in office during times of robust economic expansion, with low unemployment and a roaring bull market, generally had average approval ratings well over 50 percent. Trump’s egregious misbehavior consistently costs him at least 10 points in the polls.
Yet it is also true that Trump’s approval rating has not reached Watergate levels (Richard Nixon was at 24 percent when he resigned), and he remains within spitting distance of the popular-vote margin he received in 2016 (46.4 percent). Despite everything that’s happened, he could, I’m sorry to say, win reelection. Don’t forget Trump’s top talent: tearing down rivals. A large part of the reason he squeaked out a slim electoral-college majority in 2016 was that he was so good at turning a distinguished and thoughtful former first lady, senator and secretary of state into a caricature known as “Crooked Hillary.” Right now, Trump is being judged in a vacuum. Wait till the Democrats nominate someone to run against him and he starts flinging insults.
What might prevent Trump’s tried-and-true Don Rickles strategy from succeeding? It won’t be the criticism he gets from retired security officials, which only feeds his crackpot conspiracy theories about the Deep State. It certainly won’t be criticism from the press; in one recent poll, 43 percent of Republicans want Trump to have the power to shut down news outlets “engaged in bad behavior.” I fear that even if an n-word tape is discovered, it won’t do the trick. As Jonathan Last argues in the Weekly Standard, Republicans are more likely to normalize the n-word than they are to turn on Trump.
But that doesn’t mean Trump’s standing is forever secure. Polls consistently show that only three-quarters of his supporters strongly approve of his execrable performance; a quarter are more lukewarm. What might make these less committed supporters turn on the president? If special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finds proof of collusion and obstruction of justice, that might do the trick — at least for some of them. Maybe.
But at the end of the day, what would make the biggest difference would be an economic downturn. President Richard M. Nixon might never have been impeached were it not for the “oil shock” of 1973 and the resulting recession. While Trump might not care what newspaper editorial boards or even retired CIA directors think of him, he should care that two-thirds of business economists in a recent survey predicted a recession by the end of 2020. A growing economy has been the only thing saving Trump from a knock-out. He will hit the canvas for good if a bear market enters the ring.