Historically inclined naysayers cite the acquittals of our only two impeached presidents as support for the argument that Trump won’t be removed. Those examples, both of which ended with the commander in chief beating the charges against him and serving out his full term, on first blush do appear to bolster that case.
Andrew Johnson’s experience in particular astounds to this day. After that president’s egregious behavior and manifest unfitness for office got him impeached by the Republican-dominated House in 1868, the Senate failed to remove him from office — by one vote. That result came despite the GOP holding a greater-than-two-thirds majority in the Senate.
The wrong lesson, however, can be taken from Johnson’s nonconviction. Senators allowed the president to remain in place partly because they suspected the law that the president had violated to prompt his impeachment, the Tenure of Office Act, itself stood on particularly shaky ground. (It was, in fact, later ruled unconstitutional.) Other articles of impeachment against Johnson included “crimes” like speaking ill of Congress in public — which may very well have contravened a lingering norm from the early days of the republic but fell very well short of warranting immediate ejection from the presidency.
It’s hard to imagine Trump’s forthcoming impeachment resting on such weak foundations. Most likely, articles of impeachment against him will point to core abuses of power, obstruction of justice and failure to comply with lawful congressional subpoenas — and that’s if the House only chooses to highlight misdeeds related to the Ukraine debacle.
But it’s worth recalling that Clinton’s acquittal came largely because his violations of law were intended to cover up a personal affair, not a matter of state, and were not seen as a persistent pattern of inherent unfitness. The situation now is quite different. Trump’s actions on the Ukraine scandal alone implicate the constitutional fabric itself, and they build on inappropriate activities described in detail in the scathing Mueller report. This all puts senators tasked with judging Trump in a different place than those who judged Clinton.
The Senate-will-never-convict club can discount this history, pointing instead to congressional Republicans’ sycophancy during the past two years, and credibly say, “GOP senators are in lock-step with the president and will rally around their fellow Republican.” And indeed, getting 20 out of 53 Republican senators to agree to boot him from office won’t be easy under any circumstances.
Trump, however, is far from an institutional Republican. He had never run for office as a Republican before the 2016 presidential election. From the 1980s into the Obama years, he donated more to Democratic candidates than to Republican ones. As late as 2004, he said he identified more as a Democrat than as a Republican.
His party credentials contrast sharply with the most recent nearly impeached Republican president, Richard M. Nixon. By the time the Judiciary Committee voted on articles of impeachment against Nixon, he had been a steady partisan for almost 30 years: a Republican representative and senator from California from 1947 until 1953, vice president of the United States for eight years under Dwight D. Eisenhower, the party’s standard-bearer in the 1960 presidential election, Republican candidate in the 1962 California gubernatorial race and president since 1969.
So when Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) in early August 1974 led a GOP triumvirate to the White House to tell Nixon that he’d lost the congressional support necessary to hold on to the presidency — telling him, “There’s not more than 15 senators for you” — he was addressing the man who many Republicans saw as the face of the party.
Not so now. While the GOP has largely embraced Trump’s political program even where it breaks with long-standing party orthodoxy, he has earned little enduring loyalty within the establishment. Republican senators remain loathe to break openly with the president, but former senator Jeff Flake last month candidly assessed that 35 of his former GOP colleagues would vote to remove Trump from office if the poll were taken in private. “Anybody who has sat through two years, as I have, of Republican luncheons,” Flake also said, “realizes that there’s not a lot of love for the president.”
Flake’s point has limited utility; a Senate trial of Trump would not end, of course, with a private vote. His observation nevertheless reveals a core truth: Republican support for Trump is highly instrumental, not fundamental. If the president’s overall approval rating sat above 60 percent (as Bill Clinton’s did during his impeachment trial), or if the majority of the American people opposed impeachment and removal as they did then, or even only if support among Republicans for Trump’s impeachment and removal remained in the single digits, fear of Trump’s tweets would probably keep GOP senators in line.
Polls now tell a different story. Trump’s aggregated approval rating has never escaped the 35 to 45 percent band, keeping it stunningly short of Clinton’s overall numbers. Plus, a new Fox News poll shows 51 percent of respondents support impeaching and removing Trump. And a Washington Post-Schar School poll reveals that 18 percent of Republicans support his impeachment and removal.
In this environment, even the small dose of political courage we’ve seen this week from Republicans on Capitol Hill matters. On the Ukraine affair, at least two GOP senators — Mitt Romney (Utah) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) — publicly expressed concern about the president’s actions. Before Trump’s angry tweets responding to Romney could become a headline story, the president’s decision to expose Kurds in northern Syria to Turkish attacks spurred much wider criticism from Republican senators, including firm Trump ally Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). Talk is cheap, yes. But coming on the heels of so many instances of GOP senators’ silence in the wake of Trump’s controversies, one can forgive The Post’s Shane Harris for calling it a “Republican rebellion.” Most importantly, the president uncharacteristically refrained from lashing out at those who disagreed with him.
Political momentum has odd properties. When tides turn, they often turn quickly and harshly. While the basic math still points to a Senate acquittal, this week nevertheless brings to mind Winston Churchill’s words after the British victory at El Alamein in 1942: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”