The U.S. Will Survive This Scandal

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- How about a little bit of optimism for a change?

The Fix’s Aaron Blake sets out the case that however the Robert Mueller investigation ends up, it’s going to be extremely ugly. His case is pretty straightforward: Republicans will never accept any level of evidence of wrongdoing by President Donald Trump, while Democrats will never accept exonerating him.

It’s certainly a plausible case, as anyone who has been following the FISA application flap over the last few days might agree. After all, pretty much all the neutral experts (and partisan Democrats) said that the application made Devin Nunes look really bad, while partisan Republicans interpreted the exact same thing as vindicating the Nunes memo. 

I’ll start with how Democrats and other Trump opponents would react if Meuller doesn’t indict or recommend impeachment, and doesn’t add significant new evidence to what we know now. I think Blake’s case is weakest there. It’s true that many of them already believe that Trump has committed impeachable offenses. But I think there’s also a lot of recognition that an indictment of a sitting president is unlikely, and while a partisan impeachment might be possible if Democrats win a House majority, prospects for conviction and removal will always be slim in the Senate. If the evidence isn’t there to compel an impeachment and removal, plenty of activists will say the investigation was flawed, but most other Democratic party actors, especially members of Congress, will accept it. 

Democrats didn’t impeach Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra, and they didn’t impeach George W. Bush after the Iraq War intelligence scandal. In both of those cases, the combination of the evidence and the politics of the situation never rose to the level where a Democratic House thought impeachment was prudent, and activists lived with it. Both cases may have harmed U.S. democracy in some ways, but neither episode became ugly. The chances that Democrats would move a partisan impeachment after Mueller in effect tells them to back off seem very slim to me.

But what if it becomes more and more obvious that Trump should be removed for high crimes and misdemeanors?  

Even though there are good reporters finding no current signs that Republican politicians would turn against Trump (any more than they have already, at least), I wouldn’t count on that necessarily holding up. The Watergate example continues to be relevant. By mid-summer 1973, most of the case against Richard Nixon was already out — and conservative Republicans in Congress were publicly still loyal to him. It took a full year that included the Saturday Night Massacre, more erratic behavior, more revelations and quite a bit more evidence proving what was already known to get conservative Republicans to ultimately agree to support impeachment and removal. 

There’s no way to prove the same thing would happen if there was an overwhelming case against Trump, but it seems likely to me. After the midterm elections, one of the key reasons to stick with him is temporarily gone. If new revelations and evidence hurt him only a little bit, his re-election prospects will start looking dim; if the midterms go badly for Republicans, which is likely, more than a few of them are going to wish that he’d just go away before the 2020 cycle.

One thing I’m fairly sure of: If Trump is ever removed from office, Republicans will rally around Mike Pence and, within weeks and perhaps days, hardly anyone will be defending Trump. 

Suppose Mueller has the goods on Trump but most Republicans stick with him anyway. The most likely end game then is, again, not particularly ugly: Trump just gets defeated for re-election. That’s the fate of presidents with approval ratings in the low 40s or worse, and there’s no reason to believe he’s an exception. We don’t know whether Trump will remain unpopular in 2020, but if we assume that compelling new evidence is produced, then it’s a lot harder to see him turning things around. 

It’s not at all implausible that, as Blake argues, this all ends badly. There are plenty of nightmare scenarios, including the possibility of a narrow loss in 2020 that Trump tries to overturn in the courts, or even worse. 

Most likely, however, the system sustains damage — perhaps plenty of it — but proves resilient. The same reporting that tells us Republican politicians see no way to actively oppose Trump also tells us that they neither like him very much nor believe he’s fit for the job. That was also the case with Nixon, especially late in the game; it was never the case among Republicans with Reagan and George W. Bush. In the long run, that may prove to be more important than it seems so far.

1. Seth Masket on what looks like evolution, not revolution, among Democrats. 

2. Daniel J. Mallinson and A. Lee Hannah at the Monkey Cage on the continuing gains for easing marijuana laws.

3. Mark Spindel and Sarah Binder on presidents and the Fed

4. Terrific item from Perry Bacon Jr. and Julia Azari on the importance of Republican criticism of Trump. Once again: It’s understandable that Trump opponents would push Republican critics to do more, but when it comes to public opinion, the key is amplifying same-party attacks on the president.

5. Shannon O’Neil here at Bloomberg Opinion on how Trump’s trade policies are driving Latin American nations elsewhere for partners. 

6. Stan Collender thinks we’re more likely than not to get a government shutdown this fall. I’ll still be very surprised if there’s a significant shutdown — longer, that is, than a long weekend. It’s certainly possible, and it’s worth reading the case for why one is likely. But I have the same position as always: Extended shutdowns only happen when one side actively wants one, and so far I don’t see evidence of that.

7. And Howard Bryant reports on the militarization of organized sports in the U.S. Three reactions: One, that I agree and I’d like to see this dialed down. Two, that I’m even more dismayed at treating patriotic symbols as if they were purely, or even primarily, military ones. And third? That there’s a long history of this, and it’s just what happens in wartime, so the real cure is peace.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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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