Ailing Republican Senator John McCain called it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”. President Trump on Monday accepted Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election, siding with an autocratic adversary over the shared assessment of the CIA, FBI and other US intelligence agencies at the nadir of a cringeworthy press conference with the Russian President.
Republicans issued widespread denunciations of President Trump. Yet this is highly unlikely to be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.
Consider the fundamentals. Trump’s approval rating among self-identified Republican voters is a remarkable 90 per cent, higher at this point in the presidency with his own party than recent two-term presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and second only to the popularity of George W. Bush the year after September 11.
Trump has incomparably more influence with the base than the Republican Party’s leaders in Congress: outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Both condemned President Trump and endorsed the findings of the intelligence community. Yet the iron laws of electoral arithmetic dictate that Republican prospects in November’s midterm elections hang on whether the base will turn out to vote, so Republican leaders are hesitant to do anything that materially damages Trump’s standing.
The Russia interference story will move few votes in the American electorate. Interesting as the intrigue of spies, indictments and potential collusion might be for Washington insiders and The New York Times, it has little relevance for rusted on Trump voters in middle America. Few of Trump’s utterances in the 2016 campaign seem more prophetic than his observation that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”.
For all the noise from congressional Republicans, there is little sign they will take meaningful steps to constrain President Trump such as holding up his nominees to the courts or senior administration positions, stalling legislation or starting new hearings into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia. Republicans strongly support President Trump’s more orthodox actions, such as his nomination of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and last year’s tax bill.
In this Faustian bargain, Republicans will support a President who can deliver wins on the issues they hold dear, and so long as he remains popular with the base, they will shield him from significant political damage. John Cornyn, the second-ranked Senate Republican, even excused Trump’s remarkable comments in Helsinki: “In the President’s mind, I think he’s conflating different things — the meddling and the collusion allegations for which there does not appear to be any evidence.”
Many Republicans are laying the groundwork to ignore the conclusions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry, which President Trump calls a “witch hunt”. But few individuals could have better credentials to lead the investigation: Mueller is a highly respected investigator, worked in senior roles in the Reagan and first Bush administration and was nominated by George W. Bush in 2001 to run the FBI. Every single Republican Senator voted to confirm Mueller in 2001 and extend his tenure in 2011.
Australians often wonder when President Trump will be impeached. Yet impeachment does not mean removal from office: impeachment requires a majority vote in the House of Representatives, removal has a much higher threshold of a trial and guilty vote of a two-thirds majority in the 100-member Senate. In practice, the overwhelming majority of Democrats and close to 20 Republican senators would have to vote to convict President Trump, an equation that will barely change after the midterms because Republicans are expected to retain their majority in the upper chamber. Removing a president from office requires bipartisan buy-in, prompts months-long political and legal trauma, and is far more difficult than the political assassination of an Australian prime minister.
President Trump is set to serve until at least January 2021. He has at least two and a half years to continue upending the foreign policy positions of a Republican Party that was once the proud home of Cold War warriors. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Russia was “without question our No.1 geopolitical foe” and his predecessor John McCain said as recently as last year that Russia was the “premier and most important threat” to the United States.
But where Trump goes, the base follows. Just 38 per cent of Republicans now see Russia as a "threat to the well-being of the United States", down 20 points in the last few years despite Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.
The foreign policy trajectory of the Trump presidency is clear. The guard rails are off. The so-called "adults in the room" have little sway. Trump undermines long-held tenets of US foreign policy, admires autocrats, admonishes allies and ignores intelligence.
The right question is not "when will Trump presidency end’? It’s "how should we respond"?