After attacking pretty much everybody else, President Trump is now battling his own party. In recent days, Trump has upped the infighting ante, openly tangling with the GOP leaders of the House and Senate, along with vulnerable Sen. Jeff Flake and now Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who had questioned Trump's “stability” as president last week.
Strange statement by Bob Corker considering that he is constantly asking me whether or not he should run again in '18. Tennessee not happy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 25, 2017
Trump's most significant feud, for the moment, is with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The New York Times described it in detail last week — complete with Trump having “berated” McConnell and McConnell doubting whether Trump's presidency is salvageable. Trump previously even suggested McConnell might have to resign if he can't whip the Senate into shape. Now he's blaming him for both failing to replace Obamacare and the current budgetary “mess.”
I wouldn't be the first to note that it seems, well, counterproductive to attack your own party's leaders. It's entirely possible that this is Trump simply trying to motivate his team in his own divisive, Trump-ian way. It's also possible he's just lashing out and doesn't actually have a plan.
But there's also an Option C here. What if Trump, fed up by a lack of progress and fealty, is ready to take on his own party? What if, having systematically attacked what seems like every other institution involved in American government — the judiciary, the intelligence community, the press, the election process, law enforcement, Congress — he's now set to attack and undermine the institution whose nomination he commandeered to obtain the presidency? What if he simply ditched the Republican Party, either officially or in spirit?
It's not entirely far-fetched. This is a guy who has changed his party affiliations repeatedly, after all. And while Trump would seem to be throwing in the towel on his and the GOP's agenda — with Republican congressional majorities, no less — this is a man who doesn't lack for self-confidence and isn't afraid to fire people when things go wrong. Why should the GOP be immune to being fired?
“I've seen this as the inevitable outcome for some time now,” said Rick Wilson, a Trump-antagonizing GOP consultant based in Florida. “Trump was never a Republican to begin with; the GOP was a flag of convenience.”
The biggest question in the near term, from Trump's perspective, would be what it does to his legislative agenda. But if the GOP-controlled Congress isn't getting things done anyway — and if McConnell refuses to do what Trump asks and nuke the 60-vote threshold for legislation — Trump could decide: What's the difference? The official GOP tried to stand in his way during the 2016 campaign, and he won anyway. Why couldn't he just go it alone again? And what good are they to him if they can't pass his agenda?
But then we get into his reelection hopes. Assuming Trump plans to run again in 2020, ditching the GOP officially would mean he would have to run in what would likely be a three-way contest — a three-way contest that would risk creating chasms in the Republican Party and giving Democrats a much easier path to victory. That would seem to work against both his and the party's interests in a big way.
“If Trump were to leave the party, the immediate impact would be very problematic for fundraising efforts at the RNC — and dry up his fundraising for his super PAC,” said one national GOP operative granted anonymity for a candid take.
Another GOP consultant said, while he viewed this situation as unlikely, it would be “cataclysmic” and would split the party in three. “Thirty percent would be pissed as hell and mad at him, 30 percent would go with him,” and the rest would be up for grabs, the consultant said.
Those divisions already lie somewhat beneath the surface, but there are cracks starting to show in Trump's base (as Trump's own pollster has confirmed). Polls show between 75 and 80 percent of Republicans still approve of Trump, but some of that approval is soft, with slightly more than half of Republicans “strongly approving” — 53 percent in one poll and 61 percent in another. That seems about as good a measure of who might stick by Trump if he went the independent route, at least initially.
Beyond that, Trump's decision to actually leave the GOP could alienate longtime Republican voters who would begin to doubt his conservatism in a way they previously hadn't — as could months and years of a lack of progress on conservative agenda items. Trump's conservative bona fides have never been great, and without the GOP label or major conservative accomplishments to speak of, that may be driven home.
“The conservatives — ideological ones, especially those within the Christian conservative movement — would fall in line behind the GOP,” said the national GOP operative. “The 'alliance' with Trump was never a comfortable one; the biggest split would be between those activists more motivated by rhetoric than substance.”
However the party fractures, we're already seeing how deep those fractures could be. Recent polling from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling has shown more than 60 percent of Trump's base turning on both Flake and McConnell in Arizona and Kentucky, respectively. We'll have to see if other polling confirms it, but these data suggest huge peril in Trump pitting his supporters against Republicans in Congress.
In addition, a poll released Thursday showed 53 percent of GOP voters in Republican districts said their members hadn't been supportive enough of Trump. If Trump says the GOP is failing him, plenty will believe it.
And you can pretty much guarantee that plenty of Republicans would stick with Trump no matter what, not least because he would be the incumbent president running for reelection. The question would be whether Trump or the GOP nominee would have any real shot against a Democrat who could pull 40-45 percent of the vote without really breaking a sweat.
But even if the GOP split 75/25 in Trump's favor or 75/25 against him, that's still very bad for the general election. Seventy-five percent of the 46 percent that Trump took in the 2016 election is nowhere close to enough to win the presidency.
Which is to say that leaving the GOP wouldn't seem to be a rational move when it comes to Trump's hopes for reelection. But all that's assuming that he's thinking rationally about running again — and that he's thinking about running again, at all.
“For him to run as an independent would require creating a massive financial and political infrastructure, but his ego is such that he'd shrug and laugh,” Wilson said. “It would destroy the GOP, but he's well on the way to doing that already.”