President Trump’s outburst against Attorney General Jeff Sessions might be the event that forces a confrontation with congressional Republicans over the Russia scandal. If Sessions is fired or resigns under pressure, the Senate will have to confirm his replacement. And if Trump nominates as Sessions’s successor someone such as Rudy Giuliani, who is seen by some as insufficiently independent from Trump or as likely to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the moment may finally be upon Republicans in Congress to signal how far they’re willing to go to check Trump’s powers.
Or it could be something else. Trump could fire Mueller. He could pardon family members (Donald Trump Jr.) or close associates (Michael Flynn) implicated in the Russia scandal — or he could even try to pardon himself. Mueller could keep his job but eventually return with a finding that Trump had in fact attempted to obstruct justice — something that has been the basis for impeachment proceedings in the past.
I don’t know which one of these scenarios is most likely to happen. But the odds are that at least one of them will eventually occur, or something equally severe that I haven’t thought of — which will put Trump on a collision course with Congress and probably force them to confront the question of impeachment.
What will happen then? The consensus of the commentary that I’ve been reading, especially on the left, is that congressional Republicans would back down in such a confrontation, hemming and hawing about Trump but ultimately not doing very much about him. In fact, an increasing number of commentators are arguing that we’re already in the midst of a constitutional crisis because of Congress’s impending and inevitable failure to curb the president’s behavior.
This is a perfectly reasonable prediction of how Congress might react. We know that partisanship is an exceptionally strong force in American politics and that Congress has become more partisan over the past few decades. And we know that Trump has brought Republicans the presidency and majorities in both chambers of Congress. So if our political compass seems to be broken in these uncertain political waters, it makes sense to use partisanship as our lodestar and presume that the GOP’s response to Trump will never go much beyond the “troubled” or “concerned” stage.
Nonetheless, I’m not so sure about it. As my colleague Julia Azari pointed out on Tuesday, we’re somewhat off the beaten path in assessing how an increasingly partisan Congress might respond to a president whose behavior has become increasingly abnormal. I don’t think it’s easy to predict how Congress would react to, for example, Trump firing Mueller — and I don’t think what’s happened so far gives us all that much guidance either way.
So don’t think of this as a “hot take” so much as a glass of cold water — a caution against overconfidence in an environment without much data or precedent. Still, there are a few things I think we can say:
Pressure is building on the Russia story
One point on which I explicitly disagree with some of the commentary I’ve read — I even disagree with Julia on this! — is the notion that the Trump-Russia stories are part of a “repeating cycle where stories break and then fade away.” I think that’s a pretty good description of how the Russia story was playing out earlier this year, when stories alleging connections between Russia and the Trump campaign were largely based on anonymous sourcing and contained few verifiable details. That made it hard for stories to build upon one another, or to be persuasive to anyone except folks who didn’t like Trump in the first place.
But now? Big chunks of the story are on the record or have happened in full view of the public. We’ve got Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., having released emails that showed him helping to arrange a meeting between Russian contacts and Trump campaign officials in the hopes of obtaining damaging information on Hillary Clinton. We’ve got Trump having fired the FBI director, James Comey, for reasons he later told NBC News were related to the FBI’s investigation into Russia. And we’ve got a special counsel, Mueller, having been appointed and reportedly investigating Trump for obstruction of justice.
This is serious stuff. And the story will probably develop further; the pace of Trump-Russia revelations has been accelerating. In the chart below, I’ve tracked whether a Trump-Russia story was the lead political story of the day, based on the top story at Memeorandum, a news aggregation site, at noon each day.1 The chart contains three categories:
- Red stories relate directly to reports about alleged ties between Russia and Trump and his associates, as well as the attempts by various governmental entities to investigate them;
- Orange stories relate to Trump’s firing of Comey and its aftermath;
- And yellow stories reflect other “Russia-adjacent” stories, such as Trump considering firing Sessions or accusing former President Barack Obama of having wiretapped him.2 While not about Trump’s ties to Russia per se, these stories are part of the cloud of dust kicked up by apparent Russian interference in the 2016 election, the various Russia investigations and Trump’s attempts to stop them.
Russia or Russia-adjacent stories led the news cycle 25 percent of the time through April 29, Trump’s 100th day in office. (A lot of those were wiretapping-related stories, which were arguably an attempt by the White House to muddy the waters on Russia; the percentage falls to 16 percent if you exclude those.) Since then, Russia or Russia-adjacent stories, including the Comey firing, have led the news 49 percent of the time (none of which have been wiretapping-related). And Russia or Russia-adjacent stories have been the news lead 56 percent of the time so far in July.
The point is that even if Congress didn’t react that strongly to Russia-Trump developments before, there also hadn’t been much proven misconduct to react to. Now, the story is more serious, with at least some evidence of attempted collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and various attempts by the White House to impede the investigation. So is Congress stepping up? Well, actually…
Congressional Republicans have taken some tangible steps on Russia
When The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins recently talked to Congressional Republicans and their staffs, he found a variety of reactions, ranging from members who thought the Russia story was a bunch of hot air to others who privately thought it could be grounds for impeachment. But, they were united in claiming they already had taken significant steps to check the president’s behavior. As Coppins reported:
But on one point, at least, there seems to be widespread consensus: All of them believe they’re already doing everything they can within reason to hold the president accountable — and they fiercely reject any argument to the contrary.
Needless to say, these Republicans are making a debatable assertion. As we reported, for example, Republicans in Congress didn’t have all that much to say about the Trump Jr. meeting. And while relatively few Republicans expressed support for the Comey firing, even fewer called for a special prosecutor or an independent investigation. (Mueller was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, rather than by Congress.)
There are some meaningful steps that Republicans have taken, however:
- The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Trump-Russia ties has been pretty serious, even if the House’s investigation has not been. The Senate has called (and sometimes even subpoenaed) a wide-ranging slate of witnesses. Comey’s testimony before the committee in June was a major spectacle, and committee chair Richard Burr asked Comey fairly evenhanded and nonpartisan questions.
- The Senate and House recently passed sanctions against Russia by overwhelming, near-unanimous margins despite the initial objections of the White House.3
- Members of Congress have warned Trump against firing Sessions, and the threat of a Democratic filibuster will likely prevent a recess appointment that would allow Trump to temporarily replace Sessions without a confirmation vote.
This certainly isn’t everything that Republicans might do, but it isn’t nothing, either. And if Congress hasn’t done that much to investigate Trump itself, it also hasn’t gotten in the way of the more important investigations — the ones being conducted by Mueller (who was widely praised by Republicans when he was appointed as special counsel) and by the media.
It’s still early, and impeachment is a very serious step
It took two years and almost two months from the discovery of the Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972, to Richard Nixon’s resignation under threat of removal from office on August 9, 1974. Even after what was probably the most infamous event of the Watergate ordeal — the Saturday Night Massacre on Oct. 20, 1973, in which Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox — it still took almost 10 months until Nixon resigned.
In most respects, Trump is ahead of Nixon’s schedule. He’s only been president for six months — and it’s been less than three months since Comey was fired and less than three weeks since Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower was revealed.
Trump also has only a 38 or 39 percent approval rating — whereas Nixon, five months after the Watergate break-in in November 1972, overwhelmingly won re-election with 61 percent of the vote against George McGovern. Recent polls4 show that about 43 percent of the public want Trump to be impeached, which is short of a majority — but also well ahead of where Nixon was in July 1973, when just 24 percent of the public supported impeachment.
How much further Trump’s approval rating might fall and how quickly that might happen is hard to say. His numbers did decline a few percentage points after the Comey firing, but they’ve been fairly steady since then. There’s undoubtedly some truth in the notion that partisanship will give Trump a cushion with Republican voters. At the same time, his numbers are historically poor for a president at this point in his term despite a fairly good economy, which usually boosts approval ratings. And there’s been considerable erosion in the number of voters who say they strongly support Trump. Voters who go from strongly supporting a candidate to reluctantly supporting him may turn out to oppose him a few months later.
Trump, like Nixon, also has a tendency to make enemies out of former allies when feeling embattled. Some media outlets that usually strongly support Trump, such as Breitbart, have come out strongly in defense of Sessions, for example. It’s not that hard to imagine a scenario — a year or two from now — where Trump is increasingly isolated, as George W. Bush was late in his second term.
But the impeachment process is slow, both by custom and design. And that’s for good reason: Removing a popularly-elected president is a drastic step, especially early in his term. If I had to imagine a world in which Trump winds up being impeached and removed from office, it would play out fairly gradually. Some event will probably spark a confrontation between Trump and Congress later this year or early next year. But it might take until 2019, after further White House missteps throughout 2018 and a big Democratic win at the midterms, for Republicans to be ready to impeach Trump. The confrontation is increasingly unlikely to be avoided — but the key tests of how Republicans in Congress will respond to Trump’s conduct over Russia have still yet to come.