When the media talks about President Trump and Russia, it often does so in terms of dominoes falling or pressure building incrementally on the administration. With an investigative story here, a firing or a resignation under suspicious circumstances there, it’s easy for people to assume that eventually something will give, the way Richard Nixon finally broke and resigned after the Watergate story gradually developed from 1972 through 1974.
It’s certainly possible that the current investigation will build in that same way. The White House’s ostensible justification for firing FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday is that he mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. But canning him when he was in the midst of an investigation into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia is an eyebrow-raising move, especially given that the Washington Post reported that the firing came just a few days after Comey asked for more resources for his inquiry. A person can be somewhat skeptical of the progress of the Trump-Russia story so far and still think that this particular development was a big deal.
But it’s also possible that Comey’s firing is just the latest in a series of short, exciting bursts of activity that don’t ultimately produce any lasting momentum or do all that much to undermine Trump. This has mostly been the pattern of these Trump-Russia stories so far.
Take a look at the following chart, which tracks the number of Google searches for “Trump Russia” in the U.S. since Trump won the election. You can see some big spikes of attention, including in early January after Buzzfeed published a dossier containing a number of salacious but unverified accusations about Trump’s activities in Russia. Another spike comes in mid-February after Michael Flynn resigned and The New York Times published a story alleging that there had been ties between Russian intelligence officials and Trump’s campaign. But these spikes have been relatively short-lived, and there has been no long-term increase in public attention to the story.
Google searches are a silly way to track the progress of the story, you might rightly complain. Just because the public is getting a little fatigued with the Russia story doesn’t mean that the media’s investigations into it — or the FBI’s — won’t turn up anything later. Watergate took a long time to unfold.
But I’m not questioning whether there’s any possibility of the story developing to the point where it has grave consequences for Trump, such as impeachment, resignation or a complete halt to his legislative agenda. Of course that’s a possibility, and it has always been a possibility. Instead, I’m asking whether there’s any momentum toward these types of outcomes — if the odds of Trump being impeached because of a Russia-related development are substantially higher now than they were a couple of months ago, for instance. That isn’t quite as clear.
There’s a reason that those odds may not have escalated much: Republicans are in charge of the government, and so far they’ve mostly stuck with Trump. Republicans — especially Senate Republicans — are the ones with the power to form a select committee to investigate Trump’s Russia ties, or to refuse to confirm Trump’s preferred successor to Comey, or to hold up Trump’s agenda until a special prosecutor is appointed. They hold all the cards here — at least until the midterms.1
So if you want to track the progress of the Trump-Russia story, the most important benchmark is how Senate Republicans are behaving. Are Republicans, especially those who have a reputation for being loyal to the administration, taking concrete steps toward forming a select committee, for example? Or are they following Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s lead and blowing the Comey story off? I don’t mean these as rhetorical questions; we’re in the midst of tracking down Republican senators’ positions on Russia and how they’ve evolved over time. But these will be the most important indications of whether the story has legs.
Another important indicator is public opinion, which can be seen in Trump’s job approval ratings or the generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party they would vote for in a congressional race. Both those numbers are pretty bad for Trump: His approval ratings are in the low 40s, and Democrats lead Republicans by about 6 percentage points on the generic ballot. But the question is not whether those numbers are bad — Senate Republicans know the president is unpopular, but they have calculated that they’re nevertheless better off sticking by Trump. Instead, the question is whether those numbers are getting worse, which would both increase the pressure on Republicans to break with Trump and make a Democratic takeover of the House or Senate more likely. That isn’t clear either: Trump’s approval rating is about the same as it was 50 days ago.
Last night, I was scrolling through the most recent Comey news while attending a New York Rangers hockey game. (My apologies to the people who attended the game with me.) And it occurred to me that there’s a similarity between the rhythm of a hockey game and the flow of news about Trump and Russia. The thing about hockey — the thing that can make it incredibly frustrating to watch if your team is on the losing side — is that there’s not really any payoff to a buildup of activity unless it results in a goal. A team can put continued pressure on its opponent, spend a lot of time in its offensive zone, get off two or three good shots … and get nowhere. Because once the opponent relieves the pressure of the immediate threat,2 your team might as well be starting from scratch.
You should be watching intently over the next few days to see how the short-term threat to Trump develops — What does Comey say? Is there concrete evidence that Trump fired Comey because of Russia? Do key Republicans break with Trump? Maybe this really will be the turning point; it’s one of the most important, and unusual, developments in Trump’s presidency to date.
So far, however, Trump-Russia stories have gotten a huge amount of attention for two or three days at a time before the news cycle moves on to other topics. You may catch yourself thinking that surely the story is escalating to a breaking point … only to see Trump skate his way out of the mess. I really don’t have a prediction for how this particular development will unfold, but that history is worth bearing in mind.