President Trump’s Greatest Challenge

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The most important political events of 2018 are likely to be the mid-term elections in November.  They may well decide whether President Trump will be impeached and removed from office.

Although President Trump’s name will appear on no ballots, the election will be seen as a referendum on his presidency, the outcome of the public’s judgment.  And ten months before the election, the prospective results don’t look good for the President.  Indeed, they look ominous. 

In the mid-term elections, the voters will select all members of the U. S. House of Representatives, about a third of the Senate, most state governors, and numerous other state lawmakers, executives, and judges. 

In most mid-term elections, the party of the president loses seats in Congress.  The theory is that the voters, dissatisfied with the President’s leadership, will take it out on his party’s congressional candidates.  Of course, voters who like the President’s conduct of his office can also say so by voting for his party’s congressional candidates, but as a general rule, those who don’t like what’s going on, for whatever reason, are more likely to vote than those who do.  Hence the President and his party get hurt.

There are some exceptions to this general rule:  In 1998, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, the voters actually elected more Democrats to the House of Representatives, presumably because they opposed House Republicans’ drive to impeach President Clinton.  In 2002, voters actually elected more Republicans to the Senate and House, apparently to express their approval of Republican George W. Bush’s leadership in the aftermath of 9/11.  But these examples are few and far between—usually, even if the president is personally liked, his party will lose seats in the mid-term elections:  Eisenhower in 1958, Reagan in 1982 and 1986, Clinton in 1994, George W. Bush in 2006, and Obama in 2010 and 2014, all saw their respective parties’ power, and their own personal power, diminish.

Early signs indicate the Republicans may lose big in 2018.  Earlier in 2017 they won a string of five special congressional elections to fill vacancies created by the resignation of Republican congressmen to join the Trump administration.  But the victory margin of each newly-elected Republican was much smaller than that of his respective predecessor.  And later in the year, the Republicans lost the races for the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia and, of course, the vacant Alabama Senate seat as well.  The Republicans currently seem to be on course to lose more in 2018.

But for President Trump, the stakes are higher than a mere decrease in political power.  On the election outcome may hinge the future existence of his presidency, for should the Democrats regain the Congress, they are almost certain to launch impeachment proceedings against him—and they may have the numbers in Congress to succeed.

The Constitution makes impeachment a two-step process, with each chamber of Congress playing a vital role.  To actually impeach the President or some other executive or judge is to bring formal charges against him by a simple majority vote of the House of Representatives.  If the official in question is, in fact, impeached, he then faces trial in the Senate, whose members may convict and remove him from office with a two-thirds vote.

Should the Democrats win the Congress, they may feel especially emboldened to impeach President Trump should Robert Mueller’s investigation yield evidence of wrongdoing—of actual collusion with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election, of attempts at self-enrichment through government service, etc.  And even if no proof of criminality is found, the Democrats may still try to impeach the President, citing his tweets, his feuds with others, and other examples of frequently undignified and erratic personal behavior as evidence of his lack of fitness for office.  In this, they will be helped by President Trump’s abnormally low public opinion ratings.

Most polls have shown President Trump to be less popular than any other president in his first year in office (an exception is a poll showing his ratings to be the same as President Obama’s at the end of the latter’s first year in office).  Being unpopular is not, in and of itself, an impeachable offense, but lack of personal popularity makes impeachment easier, while greater personal popularity makes removal less likely.

Democrat Andrew Johnson, for example, impeached in 1868 and almost removed from office, was a deeply unpopular Democratic president in Republican-dominated America following the Civil War.  So, too, was Richard Nixon in 1974, who wisely resigned the presidency after realizing the Congress would almost certainly impeach and remove him.

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan, one of America’s most popular presidents, escaped impeachment despite his obvious dereliction of duty in allowing the Iran-Contra scandal.  And while Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, the House Republicans hurt themselves more than they hurt him, given his popularity with the public and the revelations that several Republican leaders were engaged in conducting adulterous affairs while trying to impeach him for lying under oath about his own adulteries.

So the big challenge for President Trump in 2018 is to survive a possible impeachment attempt.  He can do so if the GOP shows unexpected popularity this fall, or if he himself becomes more popular with the electorate.  How these possibilities can come about and minimize the chances of impeachment will be discussed in my next column.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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