Two of President Trump’s most ardent defenders got together Monday evening on Fox News to discuss all things Robert S. Mueller III. Law professor Alan Dershowitz has consistently argued against the special counsel’s investigation, referring to Mueller as a “zealot” earlier this week. Fox News host Sean Hannity has consistently argued against the investigation, well, in nearly every way imaginable. And on Monday, Dershowitz and Hannity agreed on what they saw as Mueller’s endgame.
“Isn’t that ultimately Mueller’s goal, though? He writes a report in the hopes that Congress uses it to impeach [Trump]? That’s the plan,” Hannity said.
“I think that’s the plan,” Dershowitz agreed. “And he’s not going to come to conclusions in the report. He’s just going to lay out the evidence in a way that will make it hard if the Democrats gain control not to impeach.”
This has been the lingering question since early in Trump’s presidency. Was there something out there that might lead to his impeachment and removal from office? Was there the equivalent of Richard Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape, the recorded conversation that was viewed as incontrovertible evidence that Nixon had sought to obstruct the Watergate investigation? Could Trump face the same fate as the only president to resign from office?
Especially over the short term, it’s unlikely. There are several key advantages that Trump enjoys that Nixon didn’t — though some of them may be temporary.
The first is alluded to in Dershowitz’s response. Nixon’s resignation followed shortly after the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment for consideration by the full House. It’s important to remember that, at the time, the House was controlled by the Democrats. The three articles of impeachment that passed (of five) were approved without needing any Republican votes (though, in each case, they received some). Should Democrats gain control of the House next January, they similarly assume control of the committees necessary to advance articles of impeachment. A Democratic majority could then impeach Trump.
Should that happen, though, it remains unlikely he would be removed from office. That requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, and the odds of the Democrats winning a majority of the Senate in November remain mediocre. Two-thirds is out of the question. Nixon short-circuited that concern with his resignation in August 1974.
Couldn’t Republicans in the Senate be swayed to vote to remove Trump from office? This gets at another important bulwark Trump enjoys: support from his party.
Last June, the Brookings Institution compared Trump’s approval rating among Republicans with Nixon’s in the period following the initial Watergate revelations.
In May 1973, Nixon’s approval among members of his own party was 90 percent. Over the course of 1973, as Watergate unfolded, that figure sank. By mid-April 1974, his approval among Republicans was only a bit above 50 percent. It never got much lower — a remarkable bit of partisan loyalty.
Trump puts that to shame. Gallup polling gave Trump 88 percent approval among Republicans on entering office. That figure is now at … 85 percent.
There was a famous meeting that took place shortly before Nixon resigned in which senior Republican congressional leaders warned Nixon that his support in Congress had evaporated. This was certainly in no small part because of the looming midterm elections. That year saw one of the largest shifts to the Democrats on the congressional ballot from February to October without the Democrats holding the White House. It’s probably not a coincidence that Nixon’s resignation took place only after Republicans in Congress had all won their primaries and were looking ahead to the general election.
Republican members of Congress in 2018 are mostly still looking ahead to primaries in which the electorate will be more conservative than the overall voter pool. Because conservative Republicans support Trump more than Republicans overall (89 percent approval, per Gallup), there’s little value in those Republicans’ bucking Trump at this point.
How many of them want to buck him in November is another question. Generic ballot polling shows the Democrats with a significant lead, but even after the announcement on Wednesday morning that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wouldn’t seek another term, Cook Political Report’s race ratings gives the Republicans 187 seats that are considered safe or likely Republican wins. Not enough for a majority, but only five seats from where the Democrats are now.
Many of those worried about losing have already announced that they don’t intend to run for reelection. Many of those in safe seats are safe because their districts have been drawn to protect them. Others can rely on the loyalty of Republican voters in a far more polarized environment than Nixon experienced. At the start of Nixon’s second term, his approval from Democrats was over 50 percent. Trump’s approval rating from Democrats has rarely been in the double digits. Party loyalty means that many Republican voters will stick with their party despite questions about the president. (Whether they’ll turn out to vote is another question.)
Trump’s got another advantage, mentioned at the beginning of this article. In Fox News, Trump enjoys a 24-hour-a-day news network that’s far less critical of him than other networks — when it’s critical at all. About half of Republicans consistently identify Fox News as their most-trusted news outlet in Suffolk University polling. A recent Monmouth University poll found that Republicans trust Trump more than CNN or MSNBC by wide margins. (Fox was about as trusted as Trump.)
Fox News is joined by conservative media outlets that often seem to be competing to cast him in a positive light against the hated Democrats or the mainstream media. During the 2016 election, social media were even more partisan than was network news, with Breitbart leading the way on the right. While Breitbart’s readership has fallen, there’s still a robust media environment in which Trump’s battle with Mueller becomes a battle of good (the former) vs. evil (the latter).
As Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean put it in January, “There’s more likelihood [Nixon] might have survived if there’d been a Fox News.”
Views of the Watergate investigation, we’ll note, were consistently fairly mixed over the course of 1973 and 1974. By September 1973, a quarter of the country thought the media were just out to get Nixon, while two-thirds disagreed. In August of that year, a majority said that the Senate hearings on Watergate were hurting the country. In April 1974, nearly half the country said that Nixon shouldn’t resign.
Some would argue that there’s a key differentiator between where Nixon was when he resigned and where Trump is now: evidence. The Watergate investigation unfolded slowly with the White House fighting revelations every step of the way. The release of that “smoking gun” tape in July 1974 — after being forced by the Supreme Court — made it all-but-impossible for Nixon to fight back against charges that he had tried to obstruct justice.
After all, the tapes revealed that Nixon had asked the heads of the CIA to pressure the FBI to curtail its Watergate investigation. A president putting that type of pressure on his Department of Justice was, in the eyes of observers at the time, simply beyond the pale.
On Tuesday, shortly after dining with Trump at the White House, Dershowitz made another appearance on Fox News to discuss the state of affairs.
“The president had the right to fire [former FBI director James B.] Comey,” he told Hannity, “and the right to determine what was to be investigated.”