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How Should The Next Congress Deal With President Trump?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We discussed last week how President Trump didn’t seem too keen on compromising with Democratic House and Senate leadership — or at least his meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer did not go well — but how do we expect Congress to navigate their relationship with Trump?

For instance, do we think Sen. Lamar Alexander’s retirement will give us another Bob Corker or Jeff Flake in the Senate (AKA a Republican senator not afraid of speaking out against Trump)?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): If Corker and Flake means anti-Trump rhetoric but pro-Trump voting, I don’t expect Alexander to follow that pattern. I don’t think he will bash Trump in speeches.

sarahf: But he represents the loss of another old school Republican willing to reach across the aisle?

perry: Corker and Flake very, very rarely voted with Democrats. It was more a question of their rhetoric.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Just at a very high level here, I guess I’ll be That Guy who says the GOP is more likely to break with Trump than the conventional wisdom holds.

Granted, that’s sort of a weasel-worded statement, because “what the conventional wisdom holds” could mean a lot of different things.

But Republicans had a bad midterm and Trump has a lot of fires to put out. The GOP (either collectively or individually) might decide it’s in their strategic best interest to create some distance from Trump.

perry: I think I agree with that. But it could take many forms beyond Flake-Corker style tactics. Maybe Sens. Mitt Romney or Cory Gardner distance themselves from Trump.

Or maybe we see more examples of where the Senate rebukes Trump, like they did last week in a vote calling for the end of U.S. military assistance to Yemen and blaming Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (The Trump administration has been circumspect about its views on whether Mohammed played role in the killing, perhaps because of the strong relationship between the Saudi leader and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner).

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Break with Trump on what, though? We just saw Senate Republicans downplay the news that Trump directed Michael Cohen to make illegal campaign contributions last week.

I guess I wonder what “distancing” means, given that House Democrats’ investigations into something like Trump’s finances could mean that potentially damaging information will made public. Do you mean “distancing” on those issues? Or policy? Or something else?

perry: Breaking with Trump is very issue dependent. On foreign policy, you have already seen that happen. On Robert Mueller and the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, I’m not as sure.

natesilver: That’s fair enough. And it’s not like we should expect Republicans to break with Trump on issues of economic policy, to the extent that his agenda is fairly well-aligned with theirs.

ameliatd: It seems like with foreign policy — like last week’s Yemen vote — that Senate Republicans are following up on their previous criticism of Trump for his rhetoric and actions (or inaction), in this case their outrage over the murder of Khashoggi. The vote is significant, but it’s not out of line with their past positions.

sarahf: I was surprised that the Senate voted to stop sending military aid to Yemen. But I do think we have some evidence that the Senate is willing to oppose Trump when it comes to his stances on Russia. For example, they’ve pushed back when Trump has stalled sanctions on Russia. Although, the administration has also at times passed tougher sanctions without congressional prodding.

natesilver: I do wonder what would happen if Trump really did try to push an infrastructure bill through the Democratic-controlled House — or a tax bill that would remove the SALT limitation. Those things could be popular for Trump and things the Democratic House would go along with, but still opposed by the Republican Senate.

perry: I think I disagree with Nate. I expect 90 percent of Republicans to basically go along with anything Trump does on virtually any issue, whether that’s Mueller, Russia, etc.

I think the number of GOP critics will go up, but it will still be tiny — like maybe five senators and 12 House members or something.

natesilver: We’re mostly talking about what happens if things in the Mueller investigation nexus escalates? How do Republicans react, say, if Trump pardons a family member? Or tries to fire Mueller?

perry: Exactly.

So I’m saying if he pardons Paul Manafort, his one-time campaign chairman, you have will 10 Republicans in the Senate who complain and 43 who make up excuses and basically defend it.

Do you see that math differently?

ameliatd: Pardons are tricky because the only way to rebuke Trump is basically the nuclear option — impeachment.

natesilver: Is a Manafort pardon a nuclear event?

ameliatd: I think a pardon of a family member could be a nuclear event. (Although even that has happened before! See Roger Clinton.) Manafort … depends more on how and when it happens.

perry: I think a Manafort pardon would be covered by the press as a big event, with the “Never-Trump” Republicans slamming him and suggesting that Trump is violating the rule of law. ameliatd: There have been other high-profile, unpopular pardons related to special counsel investigations — like the pardons that ended Iran-Contra — and I’d see a Manafort pardon falling in that category. Would Trump be criticized? Yes, of course. But it’s not unprecedented and I’m not convinced it would rise to the level of impeachment.

natesilver: Perry, I guess my thinking is that the generic backbench Republican senators, say, John Thune — who’s not quite a backbencher but pretty average in other respects — weren’t necessarily on the Trump Train to begin with.

So what if they have another train to board? Maybe the Pence train?

perry: That what I was trying to draw out. I don’t see someone like John Thune breaking with Trump pre-election.

And you do. That’s interesting.

I might be wrong.

natesilver: I don’t think this would necessarily happen until mid-to-late 2020, but as a matter of theory, couldn’t there be the cut-your-losses-and-save-the-Senate-because-Trump’s-gonna-lose train?

sarahf: Right, I think you could envision a larger defection among the GOP if the conventional wisdom became aligning with Trump will cost you re-election.

Granted, that hasn’t really panned out so far.

perry: I see folks in swing states like Susan Collins, Gardner and Martha McSally, taking shots at Trump. But a lot of the Trump-skeptical Republicans in the House lost in November. natesilver: But in 2016 Trump defined the (not-actually-that-long) odds and won, so there was a a bit of a perception that he walked on water. But 2018 ought to have disabused anyone of that notion.

The other thing is … the number of Republican retirements was very high in 2018, and there’s already reporting about how there might be a lot of retirements before 2020.

On the one hand, that makes Trump’s life easier, because it means (although it costs the GOP seats in Congress) that some of his critics are out of power. On the other hand, maybe that means there’s a lot of internal dissension within the GOP ranks that lurks not-so-far beneath the surface.

perry: I think the actual state of politics and where politicians think the state of politics is are different things. It might be a good idea for congressional Republicans to align less with Trump. back away from Trump. Will they? I doubt it.

ameliatd: So what would create the impetus for a larger defection? A bombshell from Mueller? Something else?

perry: I think it all boils down to re-election.

So if Trump’s numbers dip really, really low, like Bush’s 2008 levels, that changes everything. I’m not sure what Mueller finds matters, barring some really, really clear Trump-emailing Putin-style collusion.

natesilver: A Mueller report that proved (or credibly alleged) actual collusion with Russia. Pardoning a family member. Firing Mueller.

perry: Those three I think would generate huge pushback. Which is why I don’t think he’ll do the other two. The first is, of course, not up to Trump.

ameliatd: I agree with you, Perry, that Mueller’s findings may not resonate, unless there is a very clear and damaging takeaway and the report is made public.

natesilver: And then there’s a fourth, longer-term risk: a recession, which could send Trump’s approval rating tumbling into the low-mid 30s. In which case, Republicans might decide that a lot of the non-collusion investigations stuff looked like a compelling reason to distance themselves from Trump, too.

sarahf: Yeah, I think a potential recession would create more distancing from Trump. We’ve already seen some pushback regarding his stances on trade and tariff agreements within the party.

perry: I think one other potential move against Trump is a real primary challenger, with real support.

Do we see that happening?

sarahf: Ha, that’s what I was going to ask. I mean I always forget about it, but Jimmy Carter was primaried by Ted Kennedy in his re-election bid. So it has happened!

natesilver: I guess I see a primary challenge as being more an effect than a cause.

ameliatd: Isn’t that somewhat dependent on the other things happening, i.e. damaging information about Trump comes out or he does something wildly unpopular like firing Mueller, making a viable primary challenge possible?

natesilver: Like, there’s going to be some type of primary challenge to Trump, because someone’s going to want to get media attention and sell books.

But I don’t think a Kasich primary challenge would greatly affect anything.

(To take one of the more obvious names.)

ameliatd: Nobody tell Kasich that.

perry: Do you think a candidate will actually declare and run against Trump?

Larry Hogan went to this anti-Trump GOP conference I attended last week. He would be an interesting challenger, for sure.

natesilver: A scenario where Trump’s approval rating is 32 percent or something though — in which case, his approval rating among Republicans might be “only” 75 percent or something — might present the risk of a more formidable, Kennedy vs. Carter type of challenge.

perry: I agree with Nate that a real primary challenge is more an effect than a cause, but I also think such a challenge might still have an actual effect.

sarahf: That certainly would be something! But it does seem as if heading into 2019, both Democrats and Republicans have to ask themselves what will they have to show voters by 2020, especially if they can’t expect to pass a lot of legislation.

ameliatd: Well, that’s where the Democrats’ House investigations could be important.

sarahf: Do you think Democrats run the risk of having those investigations backfire?

ameliatd: I think they run the risk of taking on too much, producing too much, and sort of drowning in their own findings.

perry: I think Democrats will pass some bills in the House in the next two years, demonstrating they have an agenda. But all such bills will be blocked. They will also investigate Trump, but won’t move to impeach him without really clear evidence of collusion.

natesilver: To argue against myself a bit here, obviously one thing Republicans will be saying is that they’re key to preventing Democratic overreach — and that all Democrats do is endlessly investigate the president instead of focusing on policy. So that would align them more closely with Trump.

sarahf: I can totally see that happening.

natesilver: But maybe Democrats will be more disciplined than Republicans assume — they’ll be pretty careful about what they investigate, and how. That Pelosi seems to have tamped down any calls for impeachment is a sign that she knows what she’s doing, and different from what my expectations would have been a year ago if you’d told me that Democrats would win 40 House seats.

ameliatd: The Democrats’ investigations are from … the Democrats. So they have a higher bar to clear, in terms of establishing that they’re not just investigating Trump for the sake of investigating Trump. But Mueller’s investigation has credibility because it’s not political. (At least, insofar as anything today has credibility.)

perry: I tend to assume Mueller will find more and that what he finds will have more credibility, and that Democrats know that.

ameliatd: But the Democrats also know that Mueller doesn’t have the same goals they do.

There is a lot the Democrats might want to make public that simply isn’t relevant to Mueller’s task of finding criminal wrongdoing and then prosecuting it.

perry: I don’t know that the public will be able to assess whether “they’re investigating too much” unless it rises to the level of impeachment, which I think is a red line.

ameliatd: But impeachment itself is kind of a fuzzy line. Was directing Michael Cohen to make illegal campaign payments an impeachable offense? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to lead to serious talk of impeachment.

perry: The most interesting question I have for Democrats is whether they’ll work on bipartisan policies with Trump. For instance, there is a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in the Senate right now. It contains policy goal Democrats agree with, but it also gives Trump a win and portrays him as caring about black people, even though the GOP largely ignores black voters. Arguably, the Mitch McConnell approach (don’t work with the other party’s president on much of anything) does have some virtues, politically.

natesilver: In a weird way, it does give Democrats some leverage. They need to have policy gains that are really worth something, because the political benefit of cooperating with Trump is not obvious.

ameliatd: It’s really stunning to me that the criminal justice reform bill is moving forward now, of all times. But I don’t think the Democrats would agree to that particular legislation if they had more leverage — it’s just not far-reaching enough.

perry: So you all think that Democrats will add liberal measures to any compromise bill, knowing full well that Republicans won’t agree, therefore, effectively killing the bill?

ameliatd: I mean, what do they have to lose by doing that? It seems like they have a lot to lose by not doing that.

perry: Democrats tend to be the party of government and getting things done. I will be curious if they can stomach McConnell-style opposition.

sarahf: If Democrats adopt that approach, one risk is it feeds the narrative that all Democrats do is investigate the president and not focus on policy solutions.

And arguably, they really can’t afford to do that — at least as far as health care is concerned.

Many of them ran on a health care platform!

ameliatd: I am very interested to see what they’ll do on health care.

Particularly after that Texas judge issued a ruling striking down the entire ACA last week.

A lot of legal experts think that ruling won’t hold up on appeal, but it brings health care back into the conversation in a very dramatic way.

perry: Do Democrats: 1. Pass a Medicare-for-all bill through the House 2. Pass some kind of Medicare-for-some bill 3. Or basically do nothing but defend Obamacare?

A very liberal health care bill could give Trump something to run against in 2020.

natesilver: Perry, I’m not sure that option 2 makes sense. Either you pass option 1, to lay down a marker, or you say, “We don’t control the Senate, so let’s not bother right now.”

The thing is …. I think Medicare-for-all is going to become sort of a litmus test for Democrats in the primary anyway. So they’re going to have to “own” that policy, in some way or another.

The question is whether individual Democratic members from swing districts will want to own it when there isn’t a chance of actually passing it. If there isn’t, Pelosi will probably not bring it to the floor.

perry: Well, do they bring to floor if it can pass the House?

It will have no chance in Senate, but I think the progressive wing of the party wants a vote in the House on single payer over the next two years.

sarahf: I think you’re right, Perry. And if they have the votes, they’d pass it even though it dies in the Senate. I’m just not sure that enough Democrats from swing districts will go for it. Currently, the idea only seems to be supported by the progressive wing of the party and not the more centrist faction, which also grew considerably in 2018.

But, by the same logic, if these representatives from swing districts have nothing to show their constituencies regarding health care after two years, what do they really have to lose by backing a more progressive plan in the first place?

perry: In terms of health care, I tend to think that the 2018 election was more about what the Democrats won’t do (take away pre-existing conditions) than what they will do (more government-run health care).

natesilver: Then they can say “We prevented the GOP from doing stuff you don’t like. And we provided important checks on Trump’s powers and investigated things that needed to be investigated. Now elect more Democrats, and we can do some of our own stuff.”

I don’t think the public really has expectations for Democrats to be able to pass much when they control just one chamber of Congress and not the presidency.

ameliatd: There’s also just a limit to how much they can reasonably do, assuming they do take on a significant number of investigations, which is where I think it will be easier for them to point to results.

The Democrats will be try to make a big impact, but they’ll have to be really careful to not deluge the public or seem too partisan, and of course, not undermine the credibility of whatever Mueller finds.

In the short term, I think the Democrats will be very deferential to Mueller. But if the investigation is still going six months from now, they might also start telling him to hurry up.

natesilver: I dunno — couldn’t you say that the longer the Mueller investigation takes, the worse the timing could be for Republicans? Assuming that Mueller actually comes up with something compelling, anyway?

In theory, if Mueller came out today with a recording of a phone call between Trump and Putin saying “LOL, let’s rig the election” to one another, Republicans would have time to remove Trump from office or to primary him or whatever else. If that happened in March 2020, say, it might be too late.

Obviously that’s a weird, implausible edge case — but there are ways that later rather than earlier could be more painful for Republicans.

perry: I usually refer to an e-mail in this scenario.

But I like the idea that it’s a phone call.

ameliatd: Of course — I think the longer the Mueller investigation goes on, the more threads there are, the more potential damage there is, and the harder it is for the Republicans to respond.

But the Democrats will be somewhat limited in what they can do before the Mueller investigation is over, and there will be a lot of pressure especially from the progressive, impeach-y wing of the party.

And if there is a Mueller report, there will be a fight over that, and that will take time. So at a certain point, the Mueller investigation dragging on might not be good for either party — especially if he doesn’t end up delivering some big, dramatic, conclusive finding.

FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 draft, episode 1

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

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.