Graham derided Trump’s decision in stark terms on Monday, both on Twitter and on the Fox News program “Fox and Friends" (meaning it is likely that Trump saw what Graham said). The announcement, Graham said, is “just unnerving to its core.” That’s an interesting word choice, “unnerving,” suggesting a shaken confidence. Suggesting a potential shift, even if subtle, in how Graham views the Trump presidency.
Graham wasn’t alone in expressing consternation. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) echoed Graham’s concerns explicitly. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called it a “grave mistake” with far-ranging implications. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) warned of a “slaughter” of Kurds and expressed hope that Trump would reconsider. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) called it a “terribly unwise decision.”
That’s four senators out of a Republican caucus of 53, expressing concerns about a particular component of Trump’s presidency. But those concerns come at a problematic moment for Trump, who will likely soon be dependent on Republicans in the Senate to keep his job.
The Turkey story displaced, however temporarily, the issue that has gripped U.S. politics for the past several weeks: Trump’s overtures to Ukraine and then China to dig up dirt on potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. That effort prompted House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump, which seems likely to result in passage of articles of impeachment targeting Trump.
If that happens, the Senate will (or at least should) begin a trial in which Trump’s fate will be determined. It’s unlikely that Trump will be removed from office, a punishment for impeachment that requires two-thirds of senators to agree. Republicans hold a 53-vote majority in the chamber, meaning that Democrats need 20 Republicans (67 votes total) to support removal if Trump is to be ousted (and if every Democrat supports it as well). That’s unlikely.
Trump, though, doesn’t seem to be worried about alienating those 53 Republicans. An unnerved Graham — a senator who once predicted that Trump would destroy the Republican Party — might pay more consideration to ousting Trump following the Turkey decision than he would have prior. Senators who’ve long been oppositional to Trump to at least some extent (like Romney and Sasse) have a new rationale to oppose his presidency. Those who’ve been somewhat more positive (like Rubio) have new reason to question past support.
The math isn’t as friendly to Trump as it might seem. While the 2018 election cycle was one in which Democrats had to defend more than their fair share of Senate seats, the 2020 cycle — coming six years after the GOP’s surprisingly strong 2014 — has more Republicans looking to defend their positions. There are 23 Republicans who are either facing reelection or who’ve already announced retirements.
Some of those senators, including Collins, already face tough fights in blue or purple states. About half of those seats are considered safe for the GOP, thanks to polling and how their states have voted in past elections.
Even in those safe seats, though, Republican candidates may be under more pressure to criticize the president. Graham is in a safe seat, for example — but not one that’s as safe as Republican senators in redder states. Rubio isn’t up for reelection, but he represents Florida, a state in which views of Trump are evenly split.
There may be Democrats who are tempted to come to Trump’s defense. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is up for reelection after narrowly winning a special election in 2017. Should we assume that he’ll vote to remove Trump? Probably not.
Unless the winds start blowing more forcefully against the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), also a stalwart defender of Trump’s, issued a rare critique of the Syria decision on Monday morning. It’s McConnell who determines the scope of any trial involving impeachment, and he’s previously telegraphed a willingness to make the trial as cursory as possible. This is not the moment in which Trump wants to aggravate McConnell or to give the GOP any further reminders of the limitations of his leadership. If McConnell becomes more open to evaluating Trump’s tenure, that could be a significant tipping point.
The point is not that Trump is suddenly at risk of being removed from office. We’ve seen Republicans get cranky at Trump before and seen that crankiness dissipate. The point, instead, is that this is both a more serious confrontation with his own party than most and that it comes at a moment when Trump should be working to solidify how Republicans feel about his presidency.
For all of the assertions by Trump’s most steadfast defenders that he’s deliberate about the fights he chooses, it’s hard to see this one as anything more than a remarkable tactical blunder. In perhaps more than one sense.