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What Would A Real GOP Break From Trump Look Like?

In this week’s politics chat, we game out what would happen if relations between the Trump administration and congressional Republicans worsen. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): With all the scandals and investigations swirling around President Trump — including the latest revelation that the special counsel’s investigation includes obstruction of justice — one of the central questions continues to be: How much do Republicans, particularly congressional Republicans, support the president? The answer to that question informs how much of Trump’s agenda will be enacted, and potentially how these various investigations will unfold.

But because I feel like Democrats, progressives and many media outlets have spent a lot of time wondering if this or that will “finally” be the thing that causes the GOP to back away from Trump, I don’t want to do that. Instead, let’s look forward. Two questions for discussion today:

  1. What will be the real, tangible signs that Republicans have broken with Trump?
  2. Trump has done a lot of things and Republicans are still with him, so what would actually cause such a break?

(We’ve got a skeleton crew for our chat today; Clare and Harry are off doing more important things, but the chat must go on.)

So, for example, let’s start with the latest news, breaking late on Wednesday: Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the whole Russia affair, is looking at whether Trump obstructed justice, according to The Washington Post. We suspected this, but this is ‼️ news, right?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Yeah, it’s big news. Let’s not take the too-cool-for-school attitude that it’s no big deal just because it was a predictable step. The president, less than five months into his term in office, is being investigated for obstruction of justice. That’s a big milestone.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Obstruction of justice is how presidents get impeached and/or removed (Richard Nixon was charged with obstruction by the House Judiciary Committee; Bill Clinton by the full House). So this is important, if true. And I doubt the Post wrote this without serious consideration, even if they had to use unnamed sources to do it.

micah: Here are the money paragraphs from the Post:

The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump’s conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.

Trump had received private assurances from then-FBI Director James B. Comey starting in January that he was not personally under investigation. Officials say that changed shortly after Comey’s firing.

natesilver: Trump (or rather, Trump’s attorney’s spokesperson) is not really even denying it. In the Post’s story, he said it was a horrible, awful thing that the news was leaked. But he didn’t dispute the news, one bit.

micah: Comey’s firing may go down as one of the all-time blunders in U.S. political history.

perry: Other money part in that story:

The Justice Department has long held that it would not be appropriate to indict a sitting president. Instead, experts say, the onus would be on Congress to review any findings of criminal misconduct and then decide whether to initiate impeachment proceedings.

So ultimately, no matter what Mueller finds, it is still up to Congress.

natesilver: There are now two clear roads to impeachment. Or not to impeachment, per se, but to Congress having to wrestle with the question of impeachment.

  1. Mueller finds that Trump obstructed justice;
  2. Trump fires Mueller.

micah: 3. Mueller finds collusion?

perry: That is not clear.

natesilver: Yeah, I mean, maybe, but that’s a murky path.

The point is that Congress can’t avoid the impeachment question if either Nos. 1 or 2 happen. An impeachment proceeding is basically the correct remedy in those cases. Congress might decide it didn’t hit the threshold that made it an impeachable offense, but it couldn’t just make it all go away, at that point.

perry: And that brings us to politics. Because those roads involve either Republicans pushing for the removal of their party leader, or Democrats winning the House in 2018 and then doing it.

micah: So right, that’s the thing though: Do we really know a GOP-controlled Congress would turn on Trump even in some of these scenarios? Nothing Republicans have done so far suggests that.

natesilver: I think you’re presuming that they haven’t done anything, which isn’t completely true.

micah: What have they done?

natesilver: They had former FBI Director James Comey testify. They applauded the appointment of a special counsel, although some of them are starting to express reservations about Mueller now.

perry: Republicans have also set up investigations in the House and Senate to varying degrees. Some of the Republicans, I would say, asked tough questions of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday. And basically defended Comey’s honesty, which Trump had questioned.

There is a new bill moving through Congress, with GOP support, that would basically prevent Trump from lifting sanctions against Russia. Which feels like a big line being drawn. It passed 97-2 in the Senate on Wednesday, which seems like a firm of rejection of Trump’s attempts to shift the U.S. toward a less antagonistic relationship with Russia. (The bill still must pass the House and then either be signed by Trump or a two thirds majority in each house override his veto.) Trump lifting sanctions on Russia would have been a firing-Comey-level political disaster, and his party may be ending any chance of the president doing that.

natesilver: And all of this is less than five months into his presidency. I think you can accuse the GOP of a lot of things, including very often pandering to Trump, but I think Russia is a somewhat bad example of this phenomenon.

micah: OK, I’m going to play the role of “Democrat who’s pissed off Republicans aren’t acting more like Democrats with regards to Trump” in this chat ….

I think you’re both setting a very low bar for Republicans. During the Comey and Sessions hearings, many Republicans ran interference for the administration.

perry: Right.

micah: Trump fired an FBI director investigating his campaign and then said that’s why he fired him.

His administration has made a mess of many things: the travel ban, the foreign trip, etc. And more recently, he’s thrown House Republicans under the bus, pushing them to pass the American Health Care Act and now calling the bill “mean.”

And your answer to all that is basically “but Republicans have nibbled around the edges.”

perry: “Trump has done a lot of things and Republicans are still with him, so what would actually cause such a break?” This was your original question. I think we have to consider the possibility that partisanship and tribalism are now so strong that the answer is potentially never, assuming he does not commit a violent crime. Are we sure if he fired Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Mueller that Republicans on the Hill would break with him? I’m not.

micah: Yeah, what do you think would happen if tomorrow Trump fires Rosenstein and Mueller?

natesilver: I wouldn’t be shocked either way, but I think firing Rosenstein and Mueller might really be a breaking point for them.

micah: I’ve heard that before.

natesilver: But when?

perry: But the fact that we are saying “might” is telling.

micah: Why would firing Mueller be any different than firing Comey? For Republicans.

natesilver: Firing Comey has gotten Trump into huge trouble.

micah: Define “trouble.”

natesilver: The possibility that he’ll be impeached down the line somewhere.

micah: Remember, we’re talking about Republicans, though. That possibility basically rests on Democrats winning the House in 2018.

natesilver: I get that, but there’s a process here. They’re not going to impeach him when he’s still sniffing a 40 percent approval rating (OK, 38 percent).

micah: So what trouble is he in with Republicans, again?

perry: We need to define what Republicans reining him in means more precisely. I agree with Nate, Republicans have limited him some. But they are nowhere close to, say, drawing lines and declaring if you cross these, you will be removed from office. And he is crossing a lot of what we thought were real lines. Firing Comey being the biggest one.

natesilver: I mean, part of the problem is that short of impeachment, there aren’t a ton of steps to take. But impeachment itself is a dramatic measure.

micah: So what would Republicans do, short of impeachment? Let’s go from least to most drastic.

perry: The least dramatic would be to say they are “concerned” a lot and do nothing else, like they have been doing for most of the year. I would say that bringing Comey to the Hill and ramping up these investigations has taken this to a second, more active stage.

micah: Is passing legislation to limit what Trump can do, such as on Russia sanctions, part of Stage 2 or is that on to Stage 3?

perry: I still think of that as a kind of Stage 2. I assume Trump can sign that bill and pretend it was not targeted at him.

natesilver: I’d say it’s Stage 2b. We’ll also want to see how they deal with further appointments that Trump makes. He probably avoided a fight by nominating Christopher Wray as Comey’s replacement at FBI instead of someone more obviously partisan.

perry: Some more aggressive options: 1. demand Trump make promises not to fire Mueller, Rosenstein, Wray; 2. demand he hire a powerful chief of staff and give that person lots of power on staffing/decisions at White House; 3. censure.

micah: Censure seems like Stage 9.

natesilver: Yeah, I will grant you that not drawing a line in the sand — re: firing Mueller — isn’t a great look.

Again, the context here, though, is that he’s only been president for five months. It’s easy to forget that. So the question is where they are today, versus where they were in January.

perry: And I would say the evidence so far is that Trump is breaking norms at a faster rate than his party is reining him in. Which makes me think maybe his party won’t ever rein him in. The attacks on Mueller, after the Comey firing, have been surprising. Kellyanne Conway was attacking Mueller on Twitter. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had the right to fire Mueller but did not intend to. These seem like threats to Mueller. And look at Paul Ryan’s comment in response. It was not exactly strong.

natesilver: Oh we could have a whole separate chat about Paul Ryan.

micah: He’s been the most amazing part of all this, for me.

perry: Really? Tell me more.

micah: I guess I’ve just been surprised at how fully he’s continued to defend and back Trump. I don’t think I ever expected him to be Lindsey Graham, for example, but I didn’t expect him to be Jeff Sessions, either.

perry: Isn’t he just Mitch McConnell, but in the House?

micah: McConnell has seemed to have more of a “I don’t give a shit what Trump says” attitude?

natesilver: For me, the most revealing actions that Republicans have taken are not on Trump, but on health care.

It’s an extremely unpopular bill, and certainly not the bill that Trump ran upon.

They’re violating a lot of norms in terms of the lack of transparency in the drafting and vetting process for the bill.

micah: So what’s that reveal?

natesilver: Well, since the main effect of the bill is to cut taxes, it reveals that cutting taxes (or if you prefer, reducing the size of government) is a massive goal for them.

micah: BREAKING NEWS!!!! 🚨🚨🚨

natesilver: And they’re willing to walk over hot coals to get them.

micah: Get page one on the phone! Republicans want to cut taxes!!!!

natesilver: That’s not how they’re selling it to the public, though. They’re selling it as a health insurance bill. Which is duplicitous.

perry: I knew they were hell-bent on getting rid of Obamacare. And I think the House process showed that getting rid of Obamacare can’t involve a big public debate, because the bill is so unpopular. So they have violated some norms in the healthcare process, but I’m not shocked by those. I”m not defending them, but I’m not shocked. I’m more surprised by their insistence on defending Trump, since Vice President Mike Pence would execute the same agenda without all the crazy controversies if he became president.

micah: We’re supposed to be talking about their positioning re: Trump.

natesilver: But it reveals that they have a transactional relationship with Trump.

Get health care and tax cuts passed. Or realize that you can’t pass them.

Once that’s resolved one way or another, he maybe outlives his usefulness to the GOP.

perry: Yeah, that’s where I’m not sure you are right. I used to think that. But I wonder if they can’t get rid of Trump because Sean Hannity has more power than Paul Ryan.

micah: See … that’s what I actually think would make Republicans break with Trump. Not any norm violation or anything, but if they think he’s hurting their re-election chances or getting in the way of their agenda.

But yeah, Perry’s right: That would make them break with Trump, but they might lose the break-up.

natesilver: At this point, Trump is still popular with Republican voters, and popular-ish in red states. (At least the reddest states. Maybe not the maroon-colored ones.)

perry: Right. That is maybe a more academic way to say that than my Hannity line, but I meant the base supports him.

natesilver: Now, it’s a little bit of a Catch-22. Trump’s popularity might not fall that far (although it’s certainly fallen some) until Republicans abandon him. But they won’t abandon him unless his popularity falls further.

Still, we have seen some decline in his ratings, and especially in his “strongly approve” ratings. Quite a bit of decline, really. So there’s a process underway here, arguably.

micah: But this is where I think a lot of people on the left and in the media go astray: They’re waiting for an outrage-based reason for Republicans to dump Trump. I don’t see that happening. I could see a politics-based reason.

perry: So Micha,


micah: Mika.

natesilver: Brzezinski.

perry: You are saying that you don’t think there is anything in terms of norm-violating that Trump can do that will cause Republicans to just walk away from him?

perry: Getting Mueller fired, for example? I think I agree with you, but wanted to make sure that is what you are saying.

micah: That is what I’m saying.

perry: Only if firing Mueller causes Trump’s poll numbers to go down, Nate would say?

natesilver: What’s wrong with that, necessarily? Impeachment is a dramatic step. It removes someone who was elected by the public. Shouldn’t you want some strong evidence that the public supports the effort to impeach?

micah: Republican officials might huff and puff on CNN, but I don’t think they’d go Stage 5 or above.

And if his poll numbers go into the low 30s or high 20s, that’s a political reason.

Remember, Trump was accused by many women of sexual assault and harassment during the campaign, and there was the “Access Hollywood” tape. What happened after that? Some distancing for a couple of days and then Republicans basically got back on board.

natesilver: A lot of Republicans called for Trump to stand down. That’s a fairly dramatic step one month before an election.

micah: (I’m still in my “angry Democrat” role). Republican women did, Nate. But a ton of Republicans who unendorsed Trump or said he show bow out re-endorsed him a couple days later.

And Nate, your argument that you need strong evidence for impeachment is half besides the point. There are many steps short of impeachment.

natesilver: Nothing matters except impeachment. The other steps only matter to the extent they increase the likelihood of impeachment.

micah: What!? I don’t buy that at all!

natesilver: What other steps matter, would you say Micah?

micah: Passing legislation to constrain his policy options. Ramping up the investigations.

natesilver: No. 1 is fair enough, but that’s not germane to Russia per se. No. 2 is a step toward impeachment.

micah: Or the removal of bad actors around the president.

natesilver: Certainly; applying more scrutiny to future cabinet appointments would be a big step.

micah: So you agree with me. You were wrong.

natesilver: OK. On that one point.

perry: Closing thought: I have no idea what will make Republicans break from Trump, in part because he has done so much that is unusual and they have largely stuck with him, but also in part because I think Nate is right: It’s not clear to me the non-impeachment(ish) steps they would take. And they don’t want to impeach him. I think it might be easier for people on the Hill to impeach Trump than to get him to fire Jared Kushner!

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.