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Have Trump’s Problems Hit A Breaking Point?

In this week’s politics chat, we do an appraisal of the White House. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): So … where to start? I won’t run through all the things that have happened this week in detail, but here’s a summary from Dafna Linzer at NBC News:

And then after all that, The New York Times reported late Tuesday that President Trump asked James Comey, when he was FBI Director, to end the Michael Flynn investigation (according to a memo apparently written by Comey at the time).

We’ve talked before about whether Trump’s campaign, then President Trump’s administration, were in “disarray.” Usually, the answer is “yes,” and then the crisis (or crises) subside, there’s a period of calm, then it all starts over again. But today let’s talk “Is the Trump administration irreparably damaged?” — the idea we’re trying to get at is some combination of: Are things spinning out of control? Is the White House sustaining lasting damage? Or, does the disarray have momentum?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): So, I started thinking about this yesterday during the podcast taping with an expert in scandals that we had on (the best academic pursuit.) And to me the key question here is always: How will the American public ultimately respond to this? In scandals gone by, politicians were concerned about what people’s long-term view of a scandal might be. In theory, that’s right — what is the public’s ultimate takeaway? But I keep wondering whether or not the frenzied pace at which scandals occur now in some way blunts the impact of each one?

Or is this line of thinking too postmodernist (or something?)

A bit off-topic, but that’s the framework I tend to think about these things in.

micah: No, I think that’s the central question.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Here’s the problem as far I’m concerned: trust, among the public and the media. If I hear a statement from one of Trump’s spokespersons or someone representing the administration, I don’t believe it. How many times have we seen the administration reverse itself? We saw it with Michael Flynn. We saw it with Comey. We see it now with H.R. McMaster and Trump. The trust deficit is part of what crushed Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It seems very difficult to build back up trust once there’s a deficit.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’m normally skeptical of events in the news cycle being overhyped. But I think this is pretty bad for Trump. His worst sequence during either his campaign or his presidency so far, with the possible exception of the Access Hollywood tape and its subsequent aftermath.

micah: The asking-Comey-to-shut-down-the-Flynn-investigation thing seems like a huge development, right?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Good god. This seems really big. It is closer to actual obstruction of justice.

natesilver: I mean … what is there to say? It’s really bad news for Trump that Comey has seemingly created an extensive paper trail of their conversations. This is the sort of thing that would be the basis for impeachment. And at a minimum, the drip-drip-drip of leaks from Comey, and other people in the intelligence community, is going to create a lot of “distractions” for Trump from his ability to pass his agenda.

clare.malone: This is why it’s hard to fire lawyers. Like, legit. On any level — these people are trained to keep paper trails!

perry: It seems like firing Comey may have been worse than just letting Comey investigate Trump’s connections to Russia. This was a huge political mistake, even aside from the ethics of it and the violation of norms.

clare.malone: Yeah. It does seem more and more like a decision that came to Trump out of pique and then was justified by the people around him. The latter part is more fascinating to me still — why they let him do that?

perry: Still, we should be careful about predicting permanent damage to Trump after all that happened in the campaign. Or to say the disarray has momentum and is permanent. What if the health care bill passes in 6-8 weeks?

clare.malone: The campaign thing is really fair to point out, but then the next question to ask is whether the office of the presidency being involved colors things differently. With this scandal — national security being massively disrupted, potentially — that’s something that’s really different from the campaign scandals.

natesilver: It’s sort of a myth that Trump was impervious to damage in the campaign. A lot of the things that people expected to damage him did damage him, at least during the general election. He got elected despite having only about a 38 percent favorability rating for a variety of somewhat quirky circumstances. And during the campaign, he had the benefit of having Clinton as his foil — and she was capable of her own screw-ups, obviously.

I’m not sure there’s anything comparable when you’re president — you’re sort of running against yourself.

harry: Basically, Nate is talking about this.

perry: I’m not saying these controversies don’t matter politically. But winning the presidency is obviously something. Getting a huge health care bill passed would be something. If you can govern and pass big bills, that is the point of being president.

So I guess we maybe should make a distinction between politics (big effect) versus policy (not as sure).

micah: Yeah, let’s separate things that way … politics first …

Do the Comey scandal, the classified info scandal, the latest Times report, etc. do lasting damage to the GOP’s prospects in 2018, and Trump’s re-election chances?

harry: Each is another building block.

clare.malone: I think they do damage. Let’s think of say, those reluctant Trump voters in the suburbs — they might not think that the long-simmering Russia investigation was actually a big deal, but I think if you were a skeptical Trump voter keeping an eye on these things and the accumulating chaos, you’re not exactly thrilled, right? You might not want to abandon him yet, but the chain of events and chaotic scene isn’t great.

natesilver: Soooo … my short answer to that, Micah, is “yeah, sure,” but I’m also not sure it’s quite the right way to be thinking about the question.

micah: What’s the right way?

natesilver: Like, what if firing Comey causes a bunch of people in the intelligence community to turn hostile to Trump, and as a result, some other scandal is exposed that wouldn’t have been exposed otherwise, and that scandal costs him the presidency or gets him impeached?

Or … what if as a result of spilling the beans to Russia, the State Department is less willing to share secrets with Trump, and as a result of his being less knowledgeable, he screws up some foreign policy crisis when he might have done OK otherwise?

micah: So it seems like you would answer our original question in the affirmative, right? The Trump scandals build on themselves.

natesilver: I might posit a semantic difference between “building on themselves” and “having consequences that could persist for months or years.” But basically, yeah.

micah: Right. I mean, the news about Trump asking Comey to stop the Flynn probe was a result of the Comey firing scandal.

Perry, Clare, Harry — you all agree?

clare.malone: The long-term narrative of investigations, scandal, etc., is bad for the voters who were already most on the edge about Trump but who voted for him.

So, yeah.

micah: haha.

clare.malone: But I wanted to say it MY WAY.

natesilver: Yeah — and those marginal/reluctant Trump voters are more important to Trump’s future than Trump’s more devoted base.

harry: Well, yes. But I think we’re thinking about it in somewhat different ways. I don’t think there needs to be any more foreign policy or intelligence fallouts for this to hurt him in the long term. But these scandals probably won’t be the key things remembered if nothing else comes from them, either. It’s part of a long string, which is why this stands out.

perry: Lasting damage to his reelection chances, from the last week? I don’t know. I think his reelection chances were already complicated by his terrible approval ratings. But no, this does not help. I have to say these two words, however: Access Hollywood.

harry: BRB, going to investigate some Trump voters at GOP HQ and see what they think. #realamerica

natesilver: 100 percent of Trump supporters support Trump, according to our reporting.

harry: Agree with Perry. This is Day Two of this new “scandal” or whatever we’re calling it. Maybe it’s Day One. Who knows what else we might find out by Friday?

natesilver: The thing is — while you can maybe portray the Comey firing as being consistent with Trump’s brand, the “sharing state secrets about ISIS with the Russians” thing really isn’t.

clare.malone: OK, how about this:

A lot of whether or not this has lasting effect in the public mind depends on the Democrats. The Republicans were able to make Clinton’s emails the talking point for months and months and months. If the Democrats were able to rhetorically weaponize these series of connected scandals, then I think they do have the potential for real lasting effect.

natesilver: There’s more conflict in this chat than usual. I’m pretty much on Clare’s side.

micah: FIGHT!

perry: Hmm. What is the disagreement?

micah: Perry, don’t ruin it.

clare.malone: Fighting is good in this family, Perry.

harry: I love all of you.

clare.malone: Your shoes are ugly.

perry: I just missed it.

clare.malone: We’re yellers.

micah: We’re trying to hype conflict to sell papers!

clare.malone: Perry, you don’t think the recent scandals have lasting effect, right? Or it’s too soon to know?

perry: I like disagreement. I’m just not sure I disagree with much here. I think these controversies could be damaging.

natesilver: I guess I’m just saying (and I think Clare is saying?) that the “this is probably bad news for Trump” outweighs the margin of uncertainty, so to speak.

clare.malone: Right.

perry: Of course it’s bad news for Trump. But whether it is permanently damaging is a different question.

clare.malone: Right. I think Nate and I are leaning on the side of, this likely is long-term bad.

perry: Can he win re-election after this week? I would say maybe. I assume you guys agree?

micah: Yeah.

clare.malone: If we’re talking about whether or not these are going to have long-term effects, it comes down to whether or not they start to be chinks in the bond between Trump and certain Republicans who always had at least a glimmer of skepticism about him.

natesilver: Right, that’s the way to measure it.

clare.malone: They are kind of the congressional stand-ins for those reluctant Trump voters.

natesilver: The Comey firing and the intelligence slip are both the sort of thing that could be grounds for impeachment, if Congress were so inclined, though.

perry: They are huge policy matters. They are huge violations of political norms. I’m just not sure they fundamentally alter the politics of the country, which are very divided, but with Trump being very unpopular, Democrats favored in 2018 and I have no idea what happens in 2020.

natesilver: One way this week has been damaging for Trump is that it makes impeachment proceedings very likely if Democrats take over the House in 2019.

perry: So that is a great point. And that is something I should have been considering during this chat.

natesilver: (To be clear, impeachment proceedings are not the same thing as the House voting for impeachment, much less the two-thirds of the Senate voting to convict….)

harry: Chris Stirewalt at Fox News had an excellent writeup of this. The idea being that what Trump is doing now isn’t making impeachment any more likely in the next year or so, but 2019 is when the action could begin.

clare.malone: But let’s theorize and say that a small number of concerned Republican senators band together after a few months of what they consider to be illiberal tendencies in the president and decide to do something (I don’t know what). Don’t moves or waves of feeling like that within the Republican establishment ultimately lead to the potential for, say, a decent intraparty challenge in 2020? (To get a lil cray.)

natesilver: So, if Democrats take over the House, 2019 could be a very interesting year. Democrats are holding impeachment hearings, and at the same time, the “invisible primary” for the 2020 GOP nomination is getting underway. Might some Republicans decide that they’re better off with Vice President Mike Pence than with Trump? Or some alternative to both Pence and Trump?

clare.malone: Yeah, Pence.

micah: Ehhh, I don’t see any evidence or rumblings of that level of Trump-abandonment at all. (As of Tuesday at 6 p.m. Eastern.) Remember, if the GOP establishment isn’t behind Trump he cannot win the nomination in 2020. See: “The Party Decides.”

Speaking of:

clare.malone: That guy has been really smart by staying out of the news, if I may say.

micah: John Kasich?

clare.malone: lol. No, Pence.

micah: I was gonna say …

clare.malone: Kasich is basically licking TV lenses.

harry: Two things: 1. If you watch Sanders vs. Kasich, you probably need a life more than I do. 2. The No. 1 thing to watch for as to whether there will be a primary challenge to the sitting president is his approval rating. Trump’s approval rating is low enough that, for a generic president, we’d expect a primary challenge.

natesilver: FWIW, the Senate can also vote to bar someone from holding office in the future if they’re impeached. The baller move for Trump is if he resigned under threat of impeachment in 2019, and then ran for the GOP nomination in 2020 anyway.

clare.malone: Harry, do you have a different metric for how low Trump would have to sink to get a challenge?

harry: I don’t know if it’s any different. The fact that perhaps Trump has a higher approval rating among Republicans compared to what you’d expect given his overall approval rating might stave off a challenge for a little bit, but if he gets much below 40 percent it’ll probably happen. (No guarantees.)

natesilver: The lowest someone ever reached in his approval ratings before getting re-elected anyway was Truman, who fell to about 33 percent by a year or two into his (inherited) first term. But in general, I think a 40-ish percent approval rating is recoverable whereas a 30-ish percent one would create massive problems for Trump.

perry: Shifting gears a bit, I actually do think this week may bring a permanent change in how the media and other Republicans view Trump. He did something that violated a big norm, firing the person who is investigating him. The comparisons of him to Richard Nixon were near constant. No one can laugh off that comparison anymore.

The people who write about authoritarian governments will be published more.

natesilver: Yeah, the fact that Trump has repeatedly undercut his own spokespersons is another long-term consequence here.

perry: Harry said this earlier in the chat, but newspapers are going to start publishing stories and basically ignoring White House denials, which are meaningless now.

natesilver: I feel like, in general in my writing on Trump to date — I won’t speak for the rest of the site — I haven’t done enough to play up the consequences of what happens if you have an incompetent president, or perhaps a mentally unstable one. Those are big things to worry about, separate from authoritarianism.

perry: I don’t know which of those three Trump is, but I think all are possibilities.

clare.malone: The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos covers Ronald Reagan/mentally unstable stuff in this piece really well. He gets into how Reagan’s staff were monitoring him and considering possibly invoking constitutional mechanisms to get him out of office.

natesilver: Reagan may have had some issues in his second term, but he also surrounded himself with highly competent people — not something I’m sure you can say for Trump.

People with a lot of defects can get along fine if they hire well.

micah: A little on the nose, Nate.

perry: That is why I think incompetent doesn’t capture well what is going on. Trump could have hired a really strong chief of staff and empowered him. He hired Reince Preibus.

natesilver: Micah is my Reince Preibus.

micah: omg.

perry: Micah is your Howard Baker. Or James Baker. (I’m kidding, but being somewhat serious.)

natesilver: Oops. Yeah, I screwed up the analogy. Micah is one of the Bakers.

perry: Trump doesn’t like managing but also has hired a flawed manager. Or he doesn’t like details.

micah: I’d rather be H.R. Haldeman.

natesilver: Another problem for Trump is that it’s going to be harder for him to hire good people, given how he’s treated the people who have worked for him so far.

micah: For the final bit here, let’s talk about how the past week’s events affect Trump’s agenda. That’s important in that it impacts peoples’ lives, but I think it’s also a good indirect measure of where the administration is.

Do the Comey firing and the Russia/info scandal (we need good shorthand for this) make it harder to enact health care reform?

clare.malone: I like Harry’s theory on this, which I think he’s typing.

perry: Yes, but doesn’t make it impossible. Same for tax reform.

natesilver: Sure, in that passing health care requires Republicans to make a big leap of faith toward Trump, given how unpopular the bill is, and this week will have given them less reason to have faith in him.

clare.malone: Harry’s theory on this (which he’s still typing) is contrarian.

harry: Well, I’m mostly with Nate and Perry here. Everything Trump has done in the last week makes him less likely to be trusted by his own staff. It makes the press less likely to trust anything they say. So to me, it can make an agenda harder to enact.

That said — and I spoke about this on the podcast — the scandals could make it easier to pass less popular legislation because they divert people’s attention. There will be fewer questions about health care because everyone will be asking what the heck is he sharing now with Russia?

natesilver: The scandals also slow down the calendar. Confirming the new FBI director could be contentious, for example. Sen. John Cornyn pulled his name from consideration on Tuesday.

But I would say this: The fact that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been largely forgiving of Trump’s recent problems suggests that they’re still holding out hope of getting some substantive legislation passed.

clare.malone: Yeah, Ryan and McConnell didn’t bat an eye, really, at this.

harry: McConnell did speak out Tuesday morning in a way that was clearly not pleased, given how quiet McConnell normally is.

micah: Yeah, McConnell really came down hard on Trump, Harry. Here’s his blistering quote: “I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulation, tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare.”

natesilver: I don’t think that kind of opposition counts for much unless it eventually turns into hard-and-fast consequences. Which, so far, we haven’t seen.

micah: My default stance on the bulk of Republican officials is: I’ll believe they’re bucking Trump when they take identifiable steps to do so.

So let’s close on this: What’s the standard for Republicans truly checking Trump? It’s definitely not anonymously complaining about the White House to media outlets.

harry: We need to keep an eye on two things. No. 1 is how often senators vote with Trump. No. 2 how many bills get passed? They often won’t bring stuff to the floor if it won’t pass. So the two of those in combination are key.

clare.malone: Once we see people besides Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham and John McCain be vocal about Trump opposition, then you’ll know if the tide is turning.

Maybe that comes from things like, upcoming, who replaces Comey — what sort of direction you go with that position is key. For example. I wonder if anyone besides Graham types in the Senate would voice opposition to a highly partisan pick.

natesilver: For me, the markers of real GOP pushback would include forming a select committee to investigate Trump-Russia stuff, or failing to confirm a key Trump cabinet nominee.

perry: Yeah, voting down nominees who are problematic. Like Trey Gowdy for FBI director, if that happened. (Although, Gowdy took himself out of the running, too.)

natesilver: Or if we’re looking at anonymous complaining … if we start to see Republicans anonymously suggesting that Trump should resign, that would be meaningful.

perry: Or truly condemning acts that violate norms, like the Comey firing.

And yeah, calling for a special prosecutor or a select committee would be important.

My other measure would be co-sponsoring legislation that takes on some of the business/tax issues around Trump. McConnell/Ryan will never let that stuff get to the floor, but if 150 House Republicans and 30 senators are on a bill calling for Trump to release his taxes, that is something

micah: So things are moving fast, but based on the fact that we haven’t really seen any of that as of Tuesday evening, the GOP is still with Trump.

perry: Oh yes.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.