US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their first face-to-face meeting.

Trump Risks It All … For What?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump capped off his disastrous three-stop foreign trip by joining Vladimir Putin for an embarrassing and craven news conference. Pressed on whether Russia had any responsibility for the poor relations with the U.S., the American president chose to ramble on about Hillary Clinton’s emails and wound up assailing his own FBI. 

After his attacks on NATO in Brussels and his efforts to undermine Prime Minister Theresa May in the U.K., Trump gave a performance that will get the lowest grades from practically everyone in the U.S. who cares about foreign policy. 

Yes, it’s very tempting to just say that a fiasco-filled foreign trip won’t matter when it comes to domestic politics. And there’s every chance that by next week the European tour will have fallen out of the news. I’m not so sure.

For one thing, the trip will further upset and unite Republicans who care about foreign policy, a group that includes Senator John McCain and the pundit Bill Kristol. As Dan Drezner wrote last week, that’s not a large club with major constituency support within the party, and it certainly doesn’t have the clout to sway Trump. Still, for a president who was elected by such a narrow margin, any defections matter, as does any failure to add to his coalition.

In addition, foreign policy conservatives have visibility that is disproportionate to their numbers. If they are mostly unified against Trump on both NATO and Russia, the president is going to be hit from all sides as long as this story is in the headlines. It could be even worse if, as some are urging, one or more administration figure resigns over the policy. 

That’s a recipe for at least a temporary drop in Trump’s approval ratings. After all, he is at the high end of the range he’s occupied since last March. There’s no reason to believe he couldn’t drop back to his previous level of 38 percent approval from 42 percent now. He wouldn’t suddenly lose all Republican backing, but he could shed a few of the independents and weak Republicans who are his least-strong supporters right now.  

If that happens, and lasts beyond August, then even a relatively small approval slump could have huge effects. As it is, Republicans are in big trouble in November -- mainly because of decisions that were locked in when Trump was even less popular than he is now. As the elections analyst Sean Trende says, “If we get back into the 30s, the mega wave is back on.”

Also, 40 percent approval is probably the rough dividing line that determines whether a president is likely to receive a serious nomination challenge. Yes, Trump’s approval among Republicans is very high and likely to stay that way. That could be misleading, however; in a primary challenge Republican voters may well like both (or more) Republican candidates. That means there’s no guarantee Trump would win the votes of those who now say they support him, including those who would certainly vote for him against a Democrat in 2020. More to the point: One or more Republicans capable of putting on a serious race may believe that those who say they support Trump could be open to persuasion. And if the president looks like a 2020 loser, Republican party actors may be very open to replacing him, and therefore wouldn’t discourage a serious contender from jumping in.

What’s more, Trump’s foreign policy record gives a challenger an easy platform to run on, even if the president can point to (relative) peace and prosperity. Trump’s blunders would also give an opponent a built-in group of high-visibility Republicans -- those primarily concerned about foreign policy and national security -- who might not command any votes, but could at least give the challenge credibility. 

It’s possible that none of this will happen. We can be certain that there will be some other administration faux pas within the next few days (or even the next few hours), and if dissenting Republicans and the neutral media move on, this all may fade very quickly. Even if it draws prolonged focus, there’s no guarantee that Trump’s approval will dip. That would be especially true if the media covers this flap, as it has so many others, as if both sides have legitimate points. 

And there’s still a long time before November, let alone before a 2020 challenger would have to begin serious operations in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

But this president is very vulnerable to sudden public opinion shifts against him right now, and his actions could cause dips in approval. It’s hard not to wonder what is so important to Trump that he’s unable to even pretend to stand up to Putin. 

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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