The big year-ahead question looming in Washington right now is a simple but brutal one: Will Donald Trump’s presidency survive 2019?
Doubts about whether Trump will serve a full term have haunted him since he took office, as Democrats and never-Trump Republicans questioned his fitness for the job, his interest in doing it, and the validity of the 2016 US election. What’s new is where the serious skepticism is now coming from.
In recent weeks, a growing number of conservative news outlets, Christian talk-radio hosts, market analysts, and pro-Trump columnists have been publicly asking: Will Trump still be president at the end of 2019? The change in attitude isn’t just because of the midterms that left Democrats in charge of the House. It’s also fueled by Trump’s increasingly erratic, isolated behavior in the White House, the ongoing government shutdown, and unsolved trade wars instigated by the president himself.
Their concerns reflect the views of US voters. About 60% of Americans think Trump should be impeached or formally censured for campaign finance and other violations, according to a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll released on Dec. 28. (For perspective, in July 1974, 53% of Americans said the House should move to impeach Nixon.)
“There are people starting to weaken,” in their support for Trump, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh warned on Dec. 10. “There are people starting to go wobbly here.”
The House investigates
With the House in their control as of January, Democrats are mulling investigations into everything from Trump’s tax returns and his kids’ business dealings to the Senate testimony of his latest Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, Congressional advisors told Quartz. Republicans in the House are bracing for the worst, but the White House appears unprepared for the possibility.
“When the calendar turns to the new year, the reality of Dems winning the House will hit the Oval Office like a ton of bricks,” columnist Michael Goodwin wrote in the conservative opinion pages of the New York Post on Dec. 22. “Dem attack dogs will have subpoena power to rummage through Trump’s life, and combined with special counsel Robert Mueller and New York federal prosecutors, will constitute a pincer movement determined to bring him down.”
Attack of the ethics watchdogs
Trump’s presidency has coincided with a rise in the number and potency of nonprofit watchdog groups in Washington that are keeping track of everything from campaign finance violations to Hatch Act offenses, and filing lawsuits when they spot ethics lapses in his administration. They’ve already shown they have teeth. The Campaign for Responsible Ethics in Washington, for example, filed the complaint that led to the Trump Foundation being shuttered, and has pending suits targeting Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and the Department of Homeland Security, among others.
“The White House would do well to understand that in some ways these groups are its most potent threat,” warned Kimberley Strassel on Dec. 27. The pro-Trump Wall Street Journal columnist has pushed right-wing conspiracy theories about an anti-Trump FBI, and trashed the non-partisan American Bar Association for questioning the credentials of Trump’s judicial nominees. Still, she warns, “when it comes to creating damaging narratives, [these watchdog groups] have the potential to be far more damaging to Team Trump than Congress.”
Senate Republicans are key
Incoming speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said the House won’t focus on Trump’s impeachment, but she faces pressure from new members who were elected to hold Trump accountable. The House needs just a simple majority vote to impeach Trump, but the Senate needs 60 votes. Whether any of the 53 Senate Republicans in the incoming Congress would vote to do so depends on how political winds shift in the months to come.
After the strong showing by Democrats in the midterms, Republicans on the Hill may already be thinking “somehow, we have to rid ourselves of this meddlesome priest,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, referencing Henry II’s quote about advisor Thomas Becket. “The obvious way to do it is to let his criminal problems be your mechanism,” he said.
A Mueller bombshell?
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is expected to wrap up in February. What it all adds up to is anyone, and everyone’s, guess right now. The FBI will likely file two reports, Lawfare explains, only one of which will be fully public, and could recommend impeachment. S0 far, the investigation has led to dozens of indictments and multiple high-profile guilty pleas, but has not explicitly stated any direct links between Trump and obstruction or collusion.
The impact for now: widespread uncertainty, which has been of no help to a seesawing stock market nervous about the level of chaos in Washington.
“If Trump survives next year, will he be re-elected in 2020?” Christian radio talk show host Steve Deace asked his guests during a recent roundtable. For what it’s worth, Ladbrooks, the online betting site, now has the odds of Trump either resigning or being impeached before the end of his first term at 2-to-1, up from about 1-in-2 in February 2017.