Does President Trump have an impeachment death wish? Is the Republican Party a political suicide pact? Those are just two of the questions that jump out over the last few days as the White House tries to face down — and shut out — the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry.
The latest Trump adventure to risk a rift between the president and the congressional Republicans he will need to defend him came, predictably enough, in a tweet. Trump compared the impeachment process to a lynching, forcing Republicans to either defend or distance themselves from him. "This is a lynching in every sense," insisted Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.). "To equate his plight to lynching is grotesque," countered former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Some did a little defending and distancing. "There's no question that the impeachment process is the closest thing to a political death row trial, so I get his absolute rejection of the process," said Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), one of two African-American Republicans currently serving in Congress. "I wouldn't use the word lynching."
It's a dance Republicans are used to doing by now, ever since Trump clinched the party's nomination for president. In just a single day last week, Trump announced the G-7 summit would be held at one of his properties, saw his White House chief of staff seemingly tell people to "get over" the role politics played in holding up aid to Ukraine, and announced a ceasefire in northern Syria that appeared to consolidate Turkish gains at the expense of the Kurds.
The first two of these were walked back and the ceasefire is expiring, creating the possibility for a different deal. But, to continue Trump's new favorite analogy, it won't be the last time Republicans have to decide whether to heed Benjamin Franklin's advice: "We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
Public support for impeachment may be rising nationally, but it is not necessarily well distributed among the swing states. The Republican base remains adamantly opposed. While GOP lawmakers are powerless to stop impeachment in the House, assuming Speaker Nancy Pelosi ever proceeds to a vote, it would take 20 of the party's senators to convict and remove Trump.
I've argued for some time that Trump is less safe from this fate than Bill Clinton. Senate Republicans agree more, and are more comfortable personally, with Vice President Mike Pence. Patience at times wears thin. Richard Nixon had much stronger relationships with leaders in his own party and still a fact pattern emerged that cost him their support, forcing his resignation.
Nevertheless, the Bill Clinton precedent is instructive. Impeachment was broadly unpopular with everyone outside the Republican base and remained so throughout the entire process. Still, Republicans in Congress by and large did what the base wanted and impeached anyway. Even with a third of the country behind them, the resulting political setback was temporary and minor: They held their majorities despite losing seats in 1998 and won back the White House in 2000. "But did [impeachment] move voters?" asked political analyst Jay Cost, who concluded, "The evidence suggests, not much."
So it stands to reason that Republicans will follow the same impeachment logic this time around, siding with their base that wants Trump acquitted even if most other voters disagree. That's what they've ultimately done at every crisis point with Trump, from the 2016 GOP convention prominent conservatives hoped would somehow be contested to the Access Hollywood bombshell and a near endless stream of subsequent controversies. Politico's Tim Alberta painstakingly documented this process in his recent book American Carnage.
The Republicans wringing their hands about Trump's latest comments about impeachment are the same ones who went wobbly in all those previous controversies, with Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney usually the hand-wring leaders. But in the end, nothing happened. Republican leaders had a legitimacy crisis with their own base, one that would not be resolved by overturning the voters' choice in the primaries. That goes double for impeachment. A conviction would require a level of Republican complicity in the removal of a president the GOP base likes and prefers to most of these senators, almost certainly an election-killer in 2020 no matter what Trump says on Twitter.
Indeed, it is arguably the case that the Democrats are being tendentious in their framing of the secret congressional testimony or even acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney's hamfisted public comments. Based on what we know now, Trump can still be defended as long as you don't presume he was motivated by corrupt intent. Even if that defense evaporates, "Let the people decide" will remain a potent anti-impeachment argument in an election year — and one that does not require getting into the weeds on any of Trump's actions.
Still, it is noteworthy than in 2017, at the peak of Trump's power as the bipartisan establishment was still in shock over his upset victory, he chose to make nice with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell rather than end the wars, build the wall or work, with the Democrats on infrastructure. Now, at the precise moment when he needs them the most, Trump has chosen to clash with his party's governing class.
Both of those decisions could define the course of his presidency.
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