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Trump Is Vulnerable to More Than Robert Mueller

With his approval ratings at record lows, Trump may face a greater threat from the voters than from law enforcement.

December 8, 2017

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.

(Photo: AP)