As we stumble to the end of the chaotic first calendar year of the Trump administration, the president’s critics have fallen into the habit of constantly monitoring American democracy’s vital signs. It’s almost as if the nation’s political institutions are hospitalized, with nurses bursting in at all hours to announce, “Just checking.”
By many reckonings, this has been a bad 10 days for the venerable patient, born 228 years ago in Philadelphia.
The Republican Senate, skipping all committee hearings, rushed through a tax-break bill filled with hand-written corrections without allowing Democrats time to read it. Michael Flynn—the president’s first national security adviser who led chants of “Lock her up” at the Republican National Convention about Hillary Clinton—pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Trump himself retweeted three vicious anti-Muslim videos that originated with a British ultra-nationalist group.
Wait, there’s more.
There was, of course, the mysterious Tweet written by Trump or his lawyer John Dowd or a squirrel on the White House lawn implying that the president had known that Flynn had lied to the FBI before Trump pressured former FBI Director James Comey to go easy on him. The resulting dustup prompted Dowd to insist with heavy-handed echoes of Watergate that a “president cannot obstruct justice.” Along the way, like a comedian searching for someone he hadn’t offended yet, Trump declared war on the FBI claiming in a Tweet that “its reputation is in Tatters.”
Not surprisingly, the tromp, tromp, tromp of Trump’s nonstop affronts to political decency have taken a toll on even moderate commentators.
In the New York Times, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein write, “The failure of Republican members of Congress to resist the anti-democratic behavior of President Trump — including holding not a single hearing on his and his team’s kleptocracy — is cringe-worthy.”
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate’s Supreme Court columnist, offered this bleak assessment: “It’s become clear that absolutely nothing will persuade Trump supporters and Republicans in Congress that it’s time to disavow the president—not lying, not spilling state secrets, not abject failure in crisis management, and not openly performed corruption. Given that reality, it often feels like it wouldn’t be enough for [Robert] Mueller to hand us a smoking gun and an indictment.”
With the conservative media searching for any misstep by Mueller as a weapon to destroy his investigation, it is easy to grasp the despair of Lithwick and others. Last weekend, the New York Times reported that Mueller in August had dropped from his staff Peter Strzok, a top FBI investigator, for sending anti-Trump text messages. A Wall Street Journal editorial responded with the claim “that Mr. Mueller is too conflicted to investigate the FBI and should step down in favor of someone more credible.”
Against this backdrop, how galling it was to see Trump chortle during a fund-raising tour of New York, "Right now we’re unbeatable…And one of the reasons is what’s happening with the markets, what’s happening with business, what’s happening with jobs.”
The combination of GOP congressional majorities, a supine Republican Party and a truculent right-wing media culture have conspired to convince many liberals that Trump and all that he represents are indeed unbeatable.
This continuing sense of political impotence by liberals has placed undue weight on the Mueller investigation. Every indictment, guilty plea and rumor has been measured against Watergate and the need to discover impeachable offenses. Simply proving a pattern of corruption around Trump and a cavalier attitude to Russian meddling in the 2016 election won’t seem sufficient. Somehow the whole enterprise will be judged a failure if the investigation fails to prevent Trump from serving out his term in the White House.
But such a Mueller-centric worldview is shortsighted. It fails to recognize the extent of Trump’s political vulnerability. In the Gallup Poll, which charts presidential approval back to Dwight Eisenhower, Trump hit his low point (33 percent approval) last week. The only other president who dipped below 50 percent approval in his first December in office was, believe it or not, Ronald Reagan in 1981 at 49 percent.
Mitch McConnell’s rush to ram the tax-break bill through the Senate was another sign of weakness since it was predicated on fears that Democrat Doug Jones would win the December 12 special election in Alabama. Even though McConnell inaccurately claims that every voter would save on taxes, a new Quinnipiac University Poll found that voters disapproved of the legislation by a lopsided 53-to-29-percent margin. Even more politically damaging for the Republicans is the belief by 61 percent of the electorate that the tax bill favors the rich.
By the way, these polling numbers do not have “unbeatable” written all over them. Rather the words that might better be associated with these survey statistics are “one-term president” and “former House Speaker Paul Ryan.” Without minimizing gerrymandering, respected political analysts like Kyle Kondik at Sabato’s Crystal Ball give the Democrats a 50–50 chance of winning back the House. And if Roy Moore is defeated in Alabama, there is a plausible scenario under which the Democrats could end up with a 51-to-49 Senate majority in 2019.
Trump may seem like a magician with his frenzied attempts at political distraction. But voters in the cheap seats remain unconvinced by the card tricks, especially since the marked decks keep spilling onto the floor. That’s why political remedies may ultimately prove more effective in taming Trump than Robert Mueller.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.