When President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing, his revelations about his ex-boss seemed explosive. Cohen depicted Trump as a racist con man and a mob chieftain, and implicated the president in crimes including witness tampering, campaign finance violations and even potentially conspiring with Russia to promote his business interests and defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the near-uniform hostility from Republicans who tangled with Cohen during the hearing — a day after 13 House Republicans voted to nullify Trump’s national emergency declaration — were stark reminders that anyone who thinks impeachment is near has misjudged the GOP.
With much of Capitol Hill awaiting the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report into the Trump campaign’s role in Russian election interference, the talk of impeachment, on a low burn for two years, is finally heating up. Op-eds have urged members of Congress to consider impeaching Trump (“The People vs. Donald Trump”; “The Inevitability of Impeachment”), while hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer opted against a presidential bid so he could concentrate on his media campaign to persuade lawmakers to launch impeachment proceedings. First-term Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) promised a gathering of progressive activists that the new Democratic House majority would do just that. Two House members have already formally introduced articles of impeachment.
The assumption, at least among those who believe impeachment is politically viable and virtually inevitable, appears to be that when Mueller’s report is released, a sizable chunk of Republican lawmakers will have no choice but to cop to Trump’s commission of high crimes and misdemeanors and join Democrats to remove him from office. Once Republicans confront overwhelming evidence that Trump has abused his power, some will inexorably put national interest ahead of partisan interest. Given how Trump has triggered a crisis of democratic legitimacy, reason and truth will win out, and justice will triumph.
Such optimism among some liberals and Never Trumpers is laudable for its faith in the durability of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances. But it’s ultimately misplaced in the context of contemporary Republican politics and our prolonged epoch of partisan polarization. Republicans may never be persuaded to impeach Trump. There are too many political and ideological incentives for them to stand with him.
Such motivations are rooted in developments that predate Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. As the Republican Party has grown more ideologically cohesive in its conservatism in recent decades (Maine’s Susan Collins is the lone Republican senator from the Northeast, and she’s not particularly moderate on most issues), few GOP lawmakers have what they see as the necessary cover politically to voice their support for impeaching Trump. Even conservative Republican incumbents such as former senator Robert Bennett of Utah and former senator Richard Lugar of Indiana who dared to work with Democrats have lost primaries in recent years, and the party has become increasingly hostile to virtually any dissent lodged from the political center — especially on acid-test matters such as impeachment. And GOP lawmakers know that Richard Nixon’s forced resignation (after Republican senators including Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott told him he had to step down) helped fracture the party and contributed to the defeat of President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Republican candidates for office have embarked upon a strategy of mobilizing their partisans to go to the polls as the most viable path to victory for more than a decade. Karl Rove helped President George W. Bush win reelection in 2004 by maximizing evangelical turnout. John McCain selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his ticket in 2008 to reassure restive conservatives, and Mitt Romney stood next to Trump to accept his endorsement in 2012 for similar reasons, even though Trump was then a leading purveyor of the racist trope that Barack Obama was born outside the United States.
Impeachment, many Republicans plausibly fear, would be fatal to their chances in 2020. The bonds and commitments — ideological, partisan, personal — that hold the party together have spurred GOP lawmakers to stick with Trump on virtually all key issues, whatever inner doubts they may harbor that he is truly fit for office. Keeping Trump in the White House, Republicans have by and large concluded, is their best hope for putting conservative judges on the bench, adopting conservative policies such as deregulation and antiabortion laws, turning out their base voters, keeping the Senate majority and holding the White House. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the once acerbic anti-Trump critic who has become one of his loudest loyalists, explained that he opted to stand with Trump because “if you don’t want to get reelected, you’re in the wrong business.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said late last year that “I love the tax bill and a lot of the other things we did [with Trump]. But I think lifetime appointments — not only to the Supreme Court but to the circuit courts — are the way you have the longest lasting impact on the country.”
Conservative policy victories function in a kind of symbiotic relationship with conservative political interests. In February, a Gallup poll found that 89 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s performance in office, while a Washington Post-ABC News poll around this time revealed a still-strong 78 percent of Republicans supporting how he has handled his job. Republicans who break with Trump and vote to impeach him know, even if they won’t say so, that their own voters would desert them in droves in a general election if they survived a primary challenge from the right.
That is why on virtually every major vote in the past two years the vast majority of congressional Republicans have followed Trump’s plea, made during the government shutdown over the border wall impasse, to “just hang together.” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) characterized Trump’s message as “just stay cohesive,” adding “he’s right on that.” “Just hang together” could well be the GOP’s motto in the Trump era, a rallying cry likely to be resurrected in any impeachment debate. Although the Never Trump movement has received the lion’s share of media attention, the far more influential development has been what might be called its opposite: Always Trump.
Republicans have something of a model for handling impeachment to boot: Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. Any charges contained in Mueller’s report are likely to be infinitely more significant than the charges used to impeach Clinton that he lied about sex under oath. Still, Republicans know that in 1999, Democrats won public opinion to their side by losing. Democrats concluded that the charges against Clinton did not merit impeachment, but they let Republicans turn impeachment into a partisan brawl and depicted them as over-the-top aggressors more concerned with destroying Clinton than with fixing the country’s problems. In the midst of impeachment proceedings in late 1998, Clinton’s party defied historical trends and picked up five seats in the House, and the president’s approval rating, according to one CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, soared to 73 percent.
Right-wing TV and talk radio kingpins including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have telegraphed that the only dealbreaker for them when it comes to Trump is if they see him going soft on their core concerns, and this conservative media ecosystem has come to Trump’s defense time after time. Last year, Limbaugh, echoing Trump, called the Mueller probe “unjustified” and the entire investigation “bogus.” Talk radio host Mark Levin signaled the mood among Trump’s media defenders when he assured Hannity that “the president’s actually in great shape when it comes to the law and when it comes to impeachment. On impeachment, all we have to do is vote and make sure the Democrats don’t win, and then he won’t be impeached.”
Perhaps few moments crystallized the right’s pro-Trump, anti-impeachment stance more clearly than a remarkable op-ed published by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) in The Washington Post in January. Writing in response to an op-ed assailing Trump three days earlier by Romney, now a Republican senator from Utah, Perdue received much less attention for his own piece. But his was far more instructive; it encapsulated the case for defending Trump to the hilt. Perdue observed that “with his attempted character assassination of the president, a fellow Republican, Romney put self-interest ahead of the larger national interest: conservative Republican governance.” Irrespective of Trump’s odious behavior (racist and sexist comments; unhinged tweets) and his actions (obstruction of justice; criminal campaign finance violations; possible conspiracy with Russia), Perdue argued that keeping faith with Republicanism and enacting the conservative agenda requires unstinting devotion to the president. Romney’s criticism of Trump, Perdue claimed, “does nothing but serve the radical liberal left and further divides conservatives,” warning that “the last thing we need now in the Senate is a Jeff Flake on steroids,” a reference to the former Arizona senator who was sharply critical of Trump’s leadership.
The evolution of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) regarding Trump is equally telling. In June 2016, as Trump was wrapping up the GOP nomination, McCarthy in a private meeting with his colleagues reportedly said, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.” “Swear to God,” he added, according to audio of the conservation obtained by The Post. Since Trump’s election, of course, McCarthy has become an unflagging Trump devotee, rarely — if ever — criticizing his party’s president while seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act, build the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and protect Trump from House oversight.
Public opinion is never static, of course, and events could alter the GOP’s calculus. (A sharp economic downturn might do more than whatever Mueller finds to change Republican minds, though.) If there is a smoking gun in the report Mueller furnishes to Congress, perhaps some Republican loyalists will endorse impeachment, after all. But more plausible still is that most Republicans will ape Trump: They’ll claim that a witch hunt yielded unfounded, partisan charges and insist that Trump did nothing wrong. They will adopt the language of “alternative facts.”
The hope that impeachment will cause an outbreak of bipartisanship should be tempered. Virtually all incentives for Republicans on the impeachment question point in the same direction: Just hang together, history be damned.