washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

January 15: Assessing Senate Republicans Before the Impeachment Trial

Now that a Senate impeachment trial is going to happen sooner or later, I took a skeptical look at possible Senate Republican supporters of conviction at New York:

The brisk and successful drive to a second impeachment of Donald Trump and his ebbing power in Washington have raised some hopes that this time around the U.S. Senate might actually convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors and bar him from future office (since the calendar will take care of removing him from the one he occupies now). Predictions that this could happen appear to be based largely on the relatively low level of Senate Republican support for Trump’s electoral-vote protests on January 6, and a surge of questionably sourced claims that Mitch McConnell might actually support conviction.

It’s worth taking a closer look at how many Republican senators might reasonably be expected to throw Trump into the dustbin of history. Seventeen GOP senators would have to break ranks to convict him on the “incitement to insurrection” impeachment article, assuming Democrats stick together (and that’s not certain given Joe Manchin’s comments suggesting that it’s unnecessary and an obstacle to future bipartisanship). After conviction, only a simple majority would be needed to prohibit Trump from holding future office. Who might these Republican defectors be, in theory?

Mitt Romney, who voted to convict and remove Trump from office in February 2020, can be expected to do the same the second time around. Another regularly anti-Trump Republican, Ben Sasse, might go along with the more concrete “incitement to insurrection” accusation this time around. You could probably place Pat Toomey, an outspoken opponent of Trump’s election-coup efforts, in the same category as Sasse; he’s also announced he’s retiring at the end of his term in 2022. Other Republican senators prone to rebellion now and then are Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, against whom Trump has pledged to campaign in 2022, and Maine’s Susan Collins, the one Republican senator reelected in a state carried by Joe Biden in November. That’s five senators, though none of them is a lead-pipe certainty for conviction.

Senators Leaving Office or Fighting for Reelection in 2022

One theory of the case is that Republicans who have nothing to lose because they are lame ducks might defect at the end of an impeachment trial — as might senators in tough 2022 reelection contests. Aside from Toomey, the one Republican senator who is definitely headed for the exit in 2022 is North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who said on January 6 that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on the Capitol, and has reportedly expressed contempt toward the 45th president in private. So you can put him down as a possible if still unlikely (Burr is hardly a boat-rocker) conviction supporter.

Another possibility is Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who will turn 89 in 2022 when his current term ends, and who has said Trump has forfeited any opportunity for future leadership of the GOP. On the other hand, the fitness fanatic Grassley could well run again in 2022, when offending Trump supporters could be precisely the kind of thing that might attract a primary challenge to an otherwise unassailable veteran. And his suggestion that Trump has already disqualified himself from a 2024 comeback could ironically help Grassley argue that making it official is unnecessary.

There’s not a lot of fodder for conviction among the 16 other Republicans likely to run for reelection in 2022 (excluding the aforementioned Murkowski). Only one, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, is in a state carried by Joe Biden, and he’s been one of the most hard-core supporters of Trump and his election-fraud claims. Most are in deep-red states where their major political concern would be a primary challenge.

2024 Presidential Aspirants

The Republican senators who would have the most to gain from Trump being sidelined in 2024 are those who have aspirations to succeed him as the GOP presidential nominee: Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Marco Rubio, just to name the most obvious presidential wannabes. But without question, the political calculation for any of them would begin with a hope that they could inherit some or all of Trump’s fervent supporters, and any real chance of the 2024 nomination might end with being labeled an enemy of MAGA. So while these worthies might hope Trump is convicted, they will not want their fingerprints on the weapon that denied Republicans the opportunity to seek vengeance and vindication for him.

If there is a possibility of a 2024 aspirant trying to stand out by taking on Trump and his legacy, it could be Cotton, the most outspoken dissenter toward Trump’s attempted election coup in the group, or possibly the supremely opportunistic Graham, who might stop sucking up to the former president after he leaves office. But the safer course for all of them is to find some excuse for voting no at the end of a Senate trial, with or without public expressions of solidarity for Trump. Cotton has already issued a statement opposing a postpresidential trial as unconstitutional.

Constitutional Sticklers

Two Republican senators, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, style themselves as more loyal to the Constitution than to any party or politician, and both have occasionally given Trump problems (while generally currying his favor). But for that very reason, they will likely be convinced by conservative constitutional scholars, like Michael Luttig, who argue that any textual analysis of the Constitution prohibits an impeachment proceeding against a former president (an argument already endorsed by Tom Cotton). And in general, that will be a convenient excuse for a no vote across the ranks of Senate Republicans.

The McConnell Factor

Mitch McConnell is notorious for valuing doubt about his intentions, so all the blind quotes from those said to be familiar with his thinking on an impeachment trial should be accordingly discounted. His own statement that he is “open” to a conviction is indeed different from his public admissions before the first impeachment trial that he was closely coordinating with the White House on a defense for the president. But it’s still literally and figuratively an expression of the formal neutrality customary for all senators before an impeachment trial, not a veiled signal that he’s going to send Trump to political hell. The two things we know for sure about McConnell is that he’s not going to go against a majority of his conference on anything important and that he’s already ensured, by refusing to reconvene the Senate until January 19, a trial managed by Chuck Schumer.

With Joe Biden taking office and testing Republican unity early and often, you have to assume McConnell isn’t going to divide his troops or lead them into a massive intraparty fight. Maybe he’ll give the signal that further defections are all right if a majority of Republican senators are onboard for convicting Trump, but he probably won’t do a single thing to make that happen.

Why Most GOP Senators Are Likely to Oppose Conviction

Despite strong bipartisan elite fury and dismay over Trump’s conduct leading up to and during the January 6 crisis, “the base” hasn’t abandoned him in any significant way. Yes, he’s losing some support across the board, but not enough to embolden Republican rebels. A new Axios-Ipsos survey dramatically shows the current public opinion dynamics: A majority of Americans now favor removing Trump from office, but “a majority of Republicans still think Trump was right to challenge his election loss, support him, don’t blame him for the Capitol mob and want him to be the Republican nominee in 2024.” Among the more than one-third of Republicans who appear to identify with Trump more than with their party, support for Trump 2024 — which of course conviction in the Senate would make impossible — is at an astronomical 92 percent.

Republican senators will be reluctant to fight that sentiment, particularly since there are so many ways they could vote against convicting Trump without condoning his conduct. As his presidency quickly recedes into the background, Senate sentiment for formally burying him may recede as well.

But the most powerful excuse for doing nothing will be the plea (ironic as it might be coming from Trump-era Republicans) we heard so often during the impeachment debate in the House: that the country needs healing as it moves from the Trump presidency to Biden’s. It’s an argument that was clearly not available during the first impeachment trial, which occurred on the brink of the most intensely combative presidential election in living memory. Implicit in a let’s-move-on posture is the belief (stated or unstated) that Trump’s grip on the GOP will fade quickly as his proximity to the power he has lost — and to the social-media platforms he has been denied — grows more distant. Senate Republicans may accept his fall from grace, but don’t count on them to give him a push.


Assessing Senate Republicans Before the Impeachment Trial

Now that a Senate impeachment trial is going to happen sooner or later, I took a skeptical look at possible Senate Republican supporters of conviction at New York:

The brisk and successful drive to a second impeachment of Donald Trump and his ebbing power in Washington have raised some hopes that this time around the U.S. Senate might actually convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors and bar him from future office (since the calendar will take care of removing him from the one he occupies now). Predictions that this could happen appear to be based largely on the relatively low level of Senate Republican support for Trump’s electoral-vote protests on January 6, and a surge of questionably sourced claims that Mitch McConnell might actually support conviction.

It’s worth taking a closer look at how many Republican senators might reasonably be expected to throw Trump into the dustbin of history. Seventeen GOP senators would have to break ranks to convict him on the “incitement to insurrection” impeachment article, assuming Democrats stick together (and that’s not certain given Joe Manchin’s comments suggesting that it’s unnecessary and an obstacle to future bipartisanship). After conviction, only a simple majority would be needed to prohibit Trump from holding future office. Who might these Republican defectors be, in theory?

Mitt Romney, who voted to convict and remove Trump from office in February 2020, can be expected to do the same the second time around. Another regularly anti-Trump Republican, Ben Sasse, might go along with the more concrete “incitement to insurrection” accusation this time around. You could probably place Pat Toomey, an outspoken opponent of Trump’s election-coup efforts, in the same category as Sasse; he’s also announced he’s retiring at the end of his term in 2022. Other Republican senators prone to rebellion now and then are Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, against whom Trump has pledged to campaign in 2022, and Maine’s Susan Collins, the one Republican senator reelected in a state carried by Joe Biden in November. That’s five senators, though none of them is a lead-pipe certainty for conviction.

Senators Leaving Office or Fighting for Reelection in 2022

One theory of the case is that Republicans who have nothing to lose because they are lame ducks might defect at the end of an impeachment trial — as might senators in tough 2022 reelection contests. Aside from Toomey, the one Republican senator who is definitely headed for the exit in 2022 is North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who said on January 6 that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack on the Capitol, and has reportedly expressed contempt toward the 45th president in private. So you can put him down as a possible if still unlikely (Burr is hardly a boat-rocker) conviction supporter.

Another possibility is Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who will turn 89 in 2022 when his current term ends, and who has said Trump has forfeited any opportunity for future leadership of the GOP. On the other hand, the fitness fanatic Grassley could well run again in 2022, when offending Trump supporters could be precisely the kind of thing that might attract a primary challenge to an otherwise unassailable veteran. And his suggestion that Trump has already disqualified himself from a 2024 comeback could ironically help Grassley argue that making it official is unnecessary.

There’s not a lot of fodder for conviction among the 16 other Republicans likely to run for reelection in 2022 (excluding the aforementioned Murkowski). Only one, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, is in a state carried by Joe Biden, and he’s been one of the most hard-core supporters of Trump and his election-fraud claims. Most are in deep-red states where their major political concern would be a primary challenge.

2024 Presidential Aspirants

The Republican senators who would have the most to gain from Trump being sidelined in 2024 are those who have aspirations to succeed him as the GOP presidential nominee: Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley, and Marco Rubio, just to name the most obvious presidential wannabes. But without question, the political calculation for any of them would begin with a hope that they could inherit some or all of Trump’s fervent supporters, and any real chance of the 2024 nomination might end with being labeled an enemy of MAGA. So while these worthies might hope Trump is convicted, they will not want their fingerprints on the weapon that denied Republicans the opportunity to seek vengeance and vindication for him.

If there is a possibility of a 2024 aspirant trying to stand out by taking on Trump and his legacy, it could be Cotton, the most outspoken dissenter toward Trump’s attempted election coup in the group, or possibly the supremely opportunistic Graham, who might stop sucking up to the former president after he leaves office. But the safer course for all of them is to find some excuse for voting no at the end of a Senate trial, with or without public expressions of solidarity for Trump. Cotton has already issued a statement opposing a postpresidential trial as unconstitutional.

Constitutional Sticklers

Two Republican senators, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, style themselves as more loyal to the Constitution than to any party or politician, and both have occasionally given Trump problems (while generally currying his favor). But for that very reason, they will likely be convinced by conservative constitutional scholars, like Michael Luttig, who argue that any textual analysis of the Constitution prohibits an impeachment proceeding against a former president (an argument already endorsed by Tom Cotton). And in general, that will be a convenient excuse for a no vote across the ranks of Senate Republicans.

The McConnell Factor

Mitch McConnell is notorious for valuing doubt about his intentions, so all the blind quotes from those said to be familiar with his thinking on an impeachment trial should be accordingly discounted. His own statement that he is “open” to a conviction is indeed different from his public admissions before the first impeachment trial that he was closely coordinating with the White House on a defense for the president. But it’s still literally and figuratively an expression of the formal neutrality customary for all senators before an impeachment trial, not a veiled signal that he’s going to send Trump to political hell. The two things we know for sure about McConnell is that he’s not going to go against a majority of his conference on anything important and that he’s already ensured, by refusing to reconvene the Senate until January 19, a trial managed by Chuck Schumer.

With Joe Biden taking office and testing Republican unity early and often, you have to assume McConnell isn’t going to divide his troops or lead them into a massive intraparty fight. Maybe he’ll give the signal that further defections are all right if a majority of Republican senators are onboard for convicting Trump, but he probably won’t do a single thing to make that happen.

Why Most GOP Senators Are Likely to Oppose Conviction

Despite strong bipartisan elite fury and dismay over Trump’s conduct leading up to and during the January 6 crisis, “the base” hasn’t abandoned him in any significant way. Yes, he’s losing some support across the board, but not enough to embolden Republican rebels. A new Axios-Ipsos survey dramatically shows the current public opinion dynamics: A majority of Americans now favor removing Trump from office, but “a majority of Republicans still think Trump was right to challenge his election loss, support him, don’t blame him for the Capitol mob and want him to be the Republican nominee in 2024.” Among the more than one-third of Republicans who appear to identify with Trump more than with their party, support for Trump 2024 — which of course conviction in the Senate would make impossible — is at an astronomical 92 percent.

Republican senators will be reluctant to fight that sentiment, particularly since there are so many ways they could vote against convicting Trump without condoning his conduct. As his presidency quickly recedes into the background, Senate sentiment for formally burying him may recede as well.

But the most powerful excuse for doing nothing will be the plea (ironic as it might be coming from Trump-era Republicans) we heard so often during the impeachment debate in the House: that the country needs healing as it moves from the Trump presidency to Biden’s. It’s an argument that was clearly not available during the first impeachment trial, which occurred on the brink of the most intensely combative presidential election in living memory. Implicit in a let’s-move-on posture is the belief (stated or unstated) that Trump’s grip on the GOP will fade quickly as his proximity to the power he has lost — and to the social-media platforms he has been denied — grows more distant. Senate Republicans may accept his fall from grace, but don’t count on them to give him a push.


January 13: Nixon, Trump and the Damage Done to Their Party

As the House moved towards impeaching Trump, at New York I did some comparisons of the consequences for the GOP compared to the Nixon disaster back in 1974:

As the Republican Party reels from Donald Trump’s seditious effort to overturn Joe Biden’s election and the impeachment it has earned him, diagnoses of the party’s malady range from fatal to weakened to sick but purged and recovering. But it’s worth remembering this isn’t the first time observers thought the party was facing an existential crisis from which it might not recover.

In October 2016, for example, Republicans were running for the hills after it was revealed that their presidential candidate had boasted of being able to get away with sexual assault, using crude terms that had to insult every woman in America. Twelve years ago, after Barack Obama’s election and a Democratic congressional landslide, there was talk of the GOP being demographically doomed unless it undertook fundamental changes to recruit new kinds of voters.

So prophecies of disaster often don’t come true. But the moment in living Republican memory that most resembles what we are experiencing today occurred in 1974, when another disgraced president scurried toward Marine One in flight from the White House: Richard Nixon.

Then, as now, Republicans stuck with their embattled and scandal-ridden president for a long time before evidence of extreme conduct (e.g., Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape and Trump’s January 6 speech inciting the riot) wrecked their unity and confidence. Then, as now, the leader had to be pushed out the door. Then, as now, there was even talk of the GOP being displaced by a new third party (today, a Trumpist “populist” party, then a Reagan-led conservative party uniting business constituencies with blue-collar workers and Southerners).

But there are some very important differences in the condition of the GOP at the endgame of these two disastrous presidencies.

Trump Has More Rank-and-File Support

In the final Gallup survey before his resignation, Nixon’s job-approval rating among Republicans was at 50 percent, and 31 percent of Republicans favored his resignation. According to a NPR/Marist survey, Trump’s job-approval rating from Republicans is at 77 percent (with 64 percent “strongly” approving), and only 15 percent of Republicans support steps to remove him from office before his term expires.

“Moving on” from Trump won’t be as easy as it was for Republicans to put Nixon in the rearview mirror, in part because they retained the White House under his successor, Gerald Ford, and in part because there was zero fear of Nixon making another comeback.

Republicans Were Consolidating an Enduring Majority Back Then, Not Now

While Nixon’s disgrace and resignation temporarily plunged his party into crisis (exemplified by the “Watergate Election” midterm Democratic landslide that occurred less than three months after Nixon left office) it’s important to remember that he won a second term by a landslide in 1972, and that the Democratic Party was in the middle of a chronic ideological crisis. Democrats won 43 percent of the popular vote for president in 1968 and 38 percent in 1972. They got a temporary respite when one-time southern voters and those disgusted by Watergate gave Jimmy Carter 50 percent in 1976, but they were back down to 41 percent in 1980 and didn’t win a popular-vote majority again until 2008. Republicans didn’t have much rebounding to do at all: They came within an eyelash of winning in 1976 and didn’t lose the presidency again until 1992.

Now it’s Republicans who are on a long-term popular-vote losing streak in presidential contests (from 1992 through 2020, with the exception of 2004). And the GOP is famously on the wrong side of demographic trends that are shrinking its coalition rooted in older white voters and expanding the opposition’s younger and more diverse base. Yes, they enjoy more robust power than their actual support merits thanks to the distorting effects of the Senate, the Electoral College, and gerrymandering of House and state legislative districts. But it’s not like they have a stiff wind at their backs as they seek to recover from a lost presidential election and now a doubly impeached president.

Post-Nixon Republicans Had a Movement and a Leader. Where’s That Now?

Despite his many years of service to his party and some genuine (if often “liberal”) policy accomplishments, Nixon had no clear ideology and no enthusiastic personal following. He sometimes pandered to and sometimes thwarted the steadily rising conservative movement that had achieved a false dawn under Barry Goldwater in 1964, but when Nixon crashed and burned in the Watergate scandal, conservatives (rooted in the South and West, where Republicans were in the ascendancy) were ready to assume leadership of the GOP. And their almost universally acknowledged leader, Ronald Reagan, very nearly won the presidential nomination in 1976 over Ford, and won the whole ball game four years later. Reagan’s 1984 reelection slogan was: “It’s Morning in America,” but it was morning in America for the conservative movement and its Republican Party in 1980.

There is no obvious ideological successor to the traditional Republican conservatism Trump swept away in 2016, and no leader waiting in the wings. Complex Republican taxonomies are a dime a dozen these days. No one thinks “Trumpism” is entirely dead as a popular movement and a distinct — if often incoherent — creed. But nor will Trump and his family conveniently step aside to enable the emergence of a “Trumpism Without Trump.” Yes, Republicans may achieve an artificial unity in seeking to thwart the new Biden administration. But the kind of positive momentum the GOP achieved in the 1980s and 1990s — and even in the early days of the George W. Bush administration — requires a hymnbook and a choir leader. Neither seem on the horizon right now.

Republicans May Not Be Ready to Move On

It all adds up to a real problem for the party Trump is damaging on his way out the door: Its voters may not let go of him, and he may not go away. And in the meantime, the problems Republicans worried about before the 45th president pushed them in a new (if self-destructive) direction haven’t been solved by his defeat and disgrace. If they can somehow get their act together quickly, 2022 could be a Republican comeback year in which they take control of Congress again and prepare to reconquer the White House. But the confusion in Republican ranks in Washington and increasingly around the country as to whether Trump is a victimized saint or a delusional villain does not bode well for a quick recovery from the furies he unleashed.


Nixon, Trump and the Damage Done to Their Party

As the House moved towards impeaching Trump, at New York I did some comparisons of the consequences for the GOP compared to the Nixon disaster back in 1974:

As the Republican Party reels from Donald Trump’s seditious effort to overturn Joe Biden’s election and the impeachment it has earned him, diagnoses of the party’s malady range from fatal to weakened to sick but purged and recovering. But it’s worth remembering this isn’t the first time observers thought the party was facing an existential crisis from which it might not recover.

In October 2016, for example, Republicans were running for the hills after it was revealed that their presidential candidate had boasted of being able to get away with sexual assault, using crude terms that had to insult every woman in America. Twelve years ago, after Barack Obama’s election and a Democratic congressional landslide, there was talk of the GOP being demographically doomed unless it undertook fundamental changes to recruit new kinds of voters.

So prophecies of disaster often don’t come true. But the moment in living Republican memory that most resembles what we are experiencing today occurred in 1974, when another disgraced president scurried toward Marine One in flight from the White House: Richard Nixon.

Then, as now, Republicans stuck with their embattled and scandal-ridden president for a long time before evidence of extreme conduct (e.g., Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape and Trump’s January 6 speech inciting the riot) wrecked their unity and confidence. Then, as now, the leader had to be pushed out the door. Then, as now, there was even talk of the GOP being displaced by a new third party (today, a Trumpist “populist” party, then a Reagan-led conservative party uniting business constituencies with blue-collar workers and Southerners).

But there are some very important differences in the condition of the GOP at the endgame of these two disastrous presidencies.

Trump Has More Rank-and-File Support

In the final Gallup survey before his resignation, Nixon’s job-approval rating among Republicans was at 50 percent, and 31 percent of Republicans favored his resignation. According to a NPR/Marist survey, Trump’s job-approval rating from Republicans is at 77 percent (with 64 percent “strongly” approving), and only 15 percent of Republicans support steps to remove him from office before his term expires.

“Moving on” from Trump won’t be as easy as it was for Republicans to put Nixon in the rearview mirror, in part because they retained the White House under his successor, Gerald Ford, and in part because there was zero fear of Nixon making another comeback.

Republicans Were Consolidating an Enduring Majority Back Then, Not Now

While Nixon’s disgrace and resignation temporarily plunged his party into crisis (exemplified by the “Watergate Election” midterm Democratic landslide that occurred less than three months after Nixon left office) it’s important to remember that he won a second term by a landslide in 1972, and that the Democratic Party was in the middle of a chronic ideological crisis. Democrats won 43 percent of the popular vote for president in 1968 and 38 percent in 1972. They got a temporary respite when one-time southern voters and those disgusted by Watergate gave Jimmy Carter 50 percent in 1976, but they were back down to 41 percent in 1980 and didn’t win a popular-vote majority again until 2008. Republicans didn’t have much rebounding to do at all: They came within an eyelash of winning in 1976 and didn’t lose the presidency again until 1992.

Now it’s Republicans who are on a long-term popular-vote losing streak in presidential contests (from 1992 through 2020, with the exception of 2004). And the GOP is famously on the wrong side of demographic trends that are shrinking its coalition rooted in older white voters and expanding the opposition’s younger and more diverse base. Yes, they enjoy more robust power than their actual support merits thanks to the distorting effects of the Senate, the Electoral College, and gerrymandering of House and state legislative districts. But it’s not like they have a stiff wind at their backs as they seek to recover from a lost presidential election and now a doubly impeached president.

Post-Nixon Republicans Had a Movement and a Leader. Where’s That Now?

Despite his many years of service to his party and some genuine (if often “liberal”) policy accomplishments, Nixon had no clear ideology and no enthusiastic personal following. He sometimes pandered to and sometimes thwarted the steadily rising conservative movement that had achieved a false dawn under Barry Goldwater in 1964, but when Nixon crashed and burned in the Watergate scandal, conservatives (rooted in the South and West, where Republicans were in the ascendancy) were ready to assume leadership of the GOP. And their almost universally acknowledged leader, Ronald Reagan, very nearly won the presidential nomination in 1976 over Ford, and won the whole ball game four years later. Reagan’s 1984 reelection slogan was: “It’s Morning in America,” but it was morning in America for the conservative movement and its Republican Party in 1980.

There is no obvious ideological successor to the traditional Republican conservatism Trump swept away in 2016, and no leader waiting in the wings. Complex Republican taxonomies are a dime a dozen these days. No one thinks “Trumpism” is entirely dead as a popular movement and a distinct — if often incoherent — creed. But nor will Trump and his family conveniently step aside to enable the emergence of a “Trumpism Without Trump.” Yes, Republicans may achieve an artificial unity in seeking to thwart the new Biden administration. But the kind of positive momentum the GOP achieved in the 1980s and 1990s — and even in the early days of the George W. Bush administration — requires a hymnbook and a choir leader. Neither seem on the horizon right now.

Republicans May Not Be Ready to Move On

It all adds up to a real problem for the party Trump is damaging on his way out the door: Its voters may not let go of him, and he may not go away. And in the meantime, the problems Republicans worried about before the 45th president pushed them in a new (if self-destructive) direction haven’t been solved by his defeat and disgrace. If they can somehow get their act together quickly, 2022 could be a Republican comeback year in which they take control of Congress again and prepare to reconquer the White House. But the confusion in Republican ranks in Washington and increasingly around the country as to whether Trump is a victimized saint or a delusional villain does not bode well for a quick recovery from the furies he unleashed.


January 8: Trump Betrays His Allies One Last Time

As this remarkable week rolled on, it occurred to me that we were seeing in the last days of the Trump presidency a downward spiral that seems inevitable. I wrote about it at New York:

Unless you count the likes of Lyndon Johnson (who began but quickly ended his bid) and Woodrow Wilson (who longed for the vindication of a third term without really pursuing it), from the start of the 20th century until now, there have only been three presidents denied a second term: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Of these, only Hoover expressed any great bitterness over the circumstances of his defeat. But he did not contest it or seek to sabotage his successor, and the man once known as the Great Humanitarian went on to continue the career of distinguished public service that lifted him to the White House in the first place. Carter was, famously, a much better ex-president than president. And Poppy Bush found quiet redemption in the political careers of his sons.

Had Donald Trump discovered a way to accept his defeat at some point during the long months between Joe Biden’s victory on November 7 and a pro-Trump mob’s sack of the Capitol on January 6, he might have left office with his head held high, convinced of his administration’s accomplishments and the wickedness of his enemies, with all his options open and all his friends and allies showering him with praise. He would have been the odds-on favorite for a comeback nomination in 2024, if he wanted that, and might have become a sort of “shadow president,” as Lindsey Graham predicted — an abiding presence in public life perpetually offering an alternative to a Biden administration with a world of troubles to manage.

But the very narcissistic traits that made Trump a president like no other made a graceful exit — or even a temporary exile — impossible. The same self-focus that has rendered him incapable of empathy or absorbing inconvenient information left him unable to imagine a White House occupied by someone else. And so, in this fateful two-month interim, he has systematically and shortsightedly damaged everyone who has helped him, and every institution that has sustained him, over the past four years. He will leave office (on January 20 if not earlier) resembling no one so much as Richard Nixon, a self-isolated shell of a man full of self-pity and empty of the political skills for which he was once famous.

Trump’s determination to leave no friend unbetrayed was most evident in his behavior toward a Republican Party that was desperate to hang onto its Senate power base in two Georgia runoff elections. The obvious winning message was the need to curb any excesses the Democratic Party might entertain if it secured a governing trifecta. Instead the president insisted on shattering party unity with loud and unremitting attacks on Republican officials in Georgia who did not cooperate with his efforts to reverse the presidential-election results, forcing Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to make their own campaigns an adjunct to his postelection crusade. Like so many other Trump allies, Loeffler and Perdue were punished for their conspicuous loyalty to him, losing what had become a referendum on his conspiracy theories and grievances. Victimized as well were their fellow Senate Republicans, who saved Trump from removal via impeachment only to find themselves in the minority less than a year later.

A host of other Republican officials in battleground states Trump lost were forced to choose between their responsibilities and the demands the president and his lawyers made. They were joined in this uncomfortable dilemma by dozens of conservative judges, some appointed by Trump, who rejected specious efforts by his Keystone Cops legal team to halt certification of the election results and generally throw sand in the gears of normal postelection procedure.

But all the damage Trump visited on his allies in recent weeks pales in comparison to what he did on January 6 in a doomed effort to nullify his defeat via a revolt against congressional recognition of Biden’s electoral-vote majority. He put his most loyal subordinate, Mike Pence (a man who raised sycophancy to unprecedented levels), in an impossible position, ordering him to personally steal the election by rejecting state-certified Biden electors and then publicly accusing him of cowardice and betrayal when he resisted the mad demand. By telling credulous MAGA folk that Pence could get away with the gambit if only he wanted to, Trump made his ever-subordinate sidekick an object of enduring contempt from the people the veep needs for his own political future.

At the same time, the electoral-vote challenge split congressional Republicans as never before, and the divisions deepened after Trump’s speech at the Save America March — in which he expressed white-hot rage toward the — drove his fans to invade and vandalize the Capitol sanctuary. There was no more vivid demonstration of the shrunken hard-core line of defense Trump enjoys than Kelly Loeffler — who spent most of 2020 posing as the Trumpiest Republican of them all — refusing to validate the challenge to Georgia’s electoral-vote count brought by such House Republicans as QAnon-loving Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was a conspicuous presence at Trump’s final rally before the Senate runoffs. As for “Establishment” Republicans like soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a partner-in-crime to so many Trump outrages over the past four years, the presidential incitement to violence led to the most open defiance of him we’ve seen since the mogul conquered the GOP in the 2016 primaries.

In that one respect, Trump may have done his betrayed friends a favor even as he self-destructed, making it easier for the Republicans who had been impatiently waiting for him to leave the White House to go public with the misgivings they had surely held privately all along. As the wave of White House and administration resignations we are seeing indicates, even some of Trump’s most subservient toadies are now disclaiming responsibility for his latest bad conduct. Again like Nixon, by the time he leaves power, Trump loyalists in Washington may be reduced to a handful of pathetic and marginal figures, some of them hoping for last-minute pardons.

The $64,000 question, of course, is how many of his grassroots supporters Trump has now alienated. Did yesterday’s spectacle in Washington (which snap polls suggest a lot of Republicans didn’t see as problematic) make the scales fall from the eyes of Trump voters who have long defended or ignored his aberrant conduct? Did they, like many GOP members of Congress, realize that Trump had betrayed them as well by associating his and their cause with disreputable violence? Or did the riot in fact radicalize previously square citizens and bolster the ranks of the real lunatics — the QAnon believers, the white supremacists, the crypto-fascists?

The next two weeks could yet determine how small Donald Trump’s bubble remains as he grudgingly surrenders — or is forced to surrender — power. The great Christian novelist Charles Williams once described hell as a place where those who think only of themselves enjoy perfect isolation forever. Trump may ensure himself a hellish future if he cannot find it within himself to think of those he has damaged and grant them the favor of a quiet departure.


Trump Betrays His Allies One Last Time

As this remarkable week rolled on, it occurred to me that we were seeing in the last days of the Trump presidency a downward spiral that seems inevitable. I wrote about it at New York:

Unless you count the likes of Lyndon Johnson (who began but quickly ended his bid) and Woodrow Wilson (who longed for the vindication of a third term without really pursuing it), from the start of the 20th century until now, there have only been three presidents denied a second term: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Of these, only Hoover expressed any great bitterness over the circumstances of his defeat. But he did not contest it or seek to sabotage his successor, and the man once known as the Great Humanitarian went on to continue the career of distinguished public service that lifted him to the White House in the first place. Carter was, famously, a much better ex-president than president. And Poppy Bush found quiet redemption in the political careers of his sons.

Had Donald Trump discovered a way to accept his defeat at some point during the long months between Joe Biden’s victory on November 7 and a pro-Trump mob’s sack of the Capitol on January 6, he might have left office with his head held high, convinced of his administration’s accomplishments and the wickedness of his enemies, with all his options open and all his friends and allies showering him with praise. He would have been the odds-on favorite for a comeback nomination in 2024, if he wanted that, and might have become a sort of “shadow president,” as Lindsey Graham predicted — an abiding presence in public life perpetually offering an alternative to a Biden administration with a world of troubles to manage.

But the very narcissistic traits that made Trump a president like no other made a graceful exit — or even a temporary exile — impossible. The same self-focus that has rendered him incapable of empathy or absorbing inconvenient information left him unable to imagine a White House occupied by someone else. And so, in this fateful two-month interim, he has systematically and shortsightedly damaged everyone who has helped him, and every institution that has sustained him, over the past four years. He will leave office (on January 20 if not earlier) resembling no one so much as Richard Nixon, a self-isolated shell of a man full of self-pity and empty of the political skills for which he was once famous.

Trump’s determination to leave no friend unbetrayed was most evident in his behavior toward a Republican Party that was desperate to hang onto its Senate power base in two Georgia runoff elections. The obvious winning message was the need to curb any excesses the Democratic Party might entertain if it secured a governing trifecta. Instead the president insisted on shattering party unity with loud and unremitting attacks on Republican officials in Georgia who did not cooperate with his efforts to reverse the presidential-election results, forcing Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to make their own campaigns an adjunct to his postelection crusade. Like so many other Trump allies, Loeffler and Perdue were punished for their conspicuous loyalty to him, losing what had become a referendum on his conspiracy theories and grievances. Victimized as well were their fellow Senate Republicans, who saved Trump from removal via impeachment only to find themselves in the minority less than a year later.

A host of other Republican officials in battleground states Trump lost were forced to choose between their responsibilities and the demands the president and his lawyers made. They were joined in this uncomfortable dilemma by dozens of conservative judges, some appointed by Trump, who rejected specious efforts by his Keystone Cops legal team to halt certification of the election results and generally throw sand in the gears of normal postelection procedure.

But all the damage Trump visited on his allies in recent weeks pales in comparison to what he did on January 6 in a doomed effort to nullify his defeat via a revolt against congressional recognition of Biden’s electoral-vote majority. He put his most loyal subordinate, Mike Pence (a man who raised sycophancy to unprecedented levels), in an impossible position, ordering him to personally steal the election by rejecting state-certified Biden electors and then publicly accusing him of cowardice and betrayal when he resisted the mad demand. By telling credulous MAGA folk that Pence could get away with the gambit if only he wanted to, Trump made his ever-subordinate sidekick an object of enduring contempt from the people the veep needs for his own political future.

At the same time, the electoral-vote challenge split congressional Republicans as never before, and the divisions deepened after Trump’s speech at the Save America March — in which he expressed white-hot rage toward the — drove his fans to invade and vandalize the Capitol sanctuary. There was no more vivid demonstration of the shrunken hard-core line of defense Trump enjoys than Kelly Loeffler — who spent most of 2020 posing as the Trumpiest Republican of them all — refusing to validate the challenge to Georgia’s electoral-vote count brought by such House Republicans as QAnon-loving Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was a conspicuous presence at Trump’s final rally before the Senate runoffs. As for “Establishment” Republicans like soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a partner-in-crime to so many Trump outrages over the past four years, the presidential incitement to violence led to the most open defiance of him we’ve seen since the mogul conquered the GOP in the 2016 primaries.

In that one respect, Trump may have done his betrayed friends a favor even as he self-destructed, making it easier for the Republicans who had been impatiently waiting for him to leave the White House to go public with the misgivings they had surely held privately all along. As the wave of White House and administration resignations we are seeing indicates, even some of Trump’s most subservient toadies are now disclaiming responsibility for his latest bad conduct. Again like Nixon, by the time he leaves power, Trump loyalists in Washington may be reduced to a handful of pathetic and marginal figures, some of them hoping for last-minute pardons.

The $64,000 question, of course, is how many of his grassroots supporters Trump has now alienated. Did yesterday’s spectacle in Washington (which snap polls suggest a lot of Republicans didn’t see as problematic) make the scales fall from the eyes of Trump voters who have long defended or ignored his aberrant conduct? Did they, like many GOP members of Congress, realize that Trump had betrayed them as well by associating his and their cause with disreputable violence? Or did the riot in fact radicalize previously square citizens and bolster the ranks of the real lunatics — the QAnon believers, the white supremacists, the crypto-fascists?

The next two weeks could yet determine how small Donald Trump’s bubble remains as he grudgingly surrenders — or is forced to surrender — power. The great Christian novelist Charles Williams once described hell as a place where those who think only of themselves enjoy perfect isolation forever. Trump may ensure himself a hellish future if he cannot find it within himself to think of those he has damaged and grant them the favor of a quiet departure.


January 7: Georgia Flips the Senate

Jon Ossoff’s confirmed victory coincided with the Trump-fueled attack on Congress, so I wrote about the conjunction of the two events at New York:

News that major news-media outlets had called Democrat Jon Ossoff’s victory over David Perdue in the Georgia Senate runoff — giving Democrats control of the upper chamber and a governing trifecta — arrived just as a shocked nation was observing the violence and chaos in the Capitol that President Trump and his Republican enablers have done so much to incite in recent months. On multiple fronts it became apparent that the irresponsible words that are the president’s signature do indeed have consequences.

For the rioters and the MAGA hordes they represented, of course, the Democratic wins in Georgia were just two more “stolen elections,” despite assurances from Republican election officials in the state that the balloting and counting were entirely clean and mostly efficient. (Raphael Warnock’s win over Kelly Loeffler was sealed late the night before, earlier than expected.) It’s increasingly clear that Trump regards any election he does not win as “stolen,” which is one of the deadliest signs of un-American authoritarianism. But no matter how long Republicans in Georgia and Washington take to concede their defeats, the Georgia runoffs will be remembered as an important part of the national transition away from the dangerous 45th presidency.

Trump richly earned another loss by trampling the potentially winning Republican message of keeping the Senate in GOP hands to rein in Biden and his party from abuses of power and excessive liberalism. He forced Loeffler and Perdue to bend their knees — and their campaigns — to his doomed effort to steal the presidential election. But then he couldn’t deliver the votes to make this hijacking of Georgia’s election an object lesson to those hoping to build a post-Trump party.

The Georgia voters who elected Warnock and Ossoff to the Senate in a dramatic general-election runoff on Tuesday had no way of knowing what would happen the very next day. But there’s rough justice in the rebuke they administered to Trump and his party. Having lost the power to systematically obstruct Biden’s appointments and legislative agenda, Trump’s divided and defeated party will suffer for quite some time after he finally leaves the White House.


Georgia Flips the Senate

Jon Ossoff’s confirmed victory coincided with the Trump-fueled attack on Congress, so I wrote about the conjunction of the two events at New York:

News that major news-media outlets had called Democrat Jon Ossoff’s victory over David Perdue in the Georgia Senate runoff — giving Democrats control of the upper chamber and a governing trifecta — arrived just as a shocked nation was observing the violence and chaos in the Capitol that President Trump and his Republican enablers have done so much to incite in recent months. On multiple fronts it became apparent that the irresponsible words that are the president’s signature do indeed have consequences.

For the rioters and the MAGA hordes they represented, of course, the Democratic wins in Georgia were just two more “stolen elections,” despite assurances from Republican election officials in the state that the balloting and counting were entirely clean and mostly efficient. (Raphael Warnock’s win over Kelly Loeffler was sealed late the night before, earlier than expected.) It’s increasingly clear that Trump regards any election he does not win as “stolen,” which is one of the deadliest signs of un-American authoritarianism. But no matter how long Republicans in Georgia and Washington take to concede their defeats, the Georgia runoffs will be remembered as an important part of the national transition away from the dangerous 45th presidency.

Trump richly earned another loss by trampling the potentially winning Republican message of keeping the Senate in GOP hands to rein in Biden and his party from abuses of power and excessive liberalism. He forced Loeffler and Perdue to bend their knees — and their campaigns — to his doomed effort to steal the presidential election. But then he couldn’t deliver the votes to make this hijacking of Georgia’s election an object lesson to those hoping to build a post-Trump party.

The Georgia voters who elected Warnock and Ossoff to the Senate in a dramatic general-election runoff on Tuesday had no way of knowing what would happen the very next day. But there’s rough justice in the rebuke they administered to Trump and his party. Having lost the power to systematically obstruct Biden’s appointments and legislative agenda, Trump’s divided and defeated party will suffer for quite some time after he finally leaves the White House.


December 30: The Trump Election Coup Circus Will Come to Congress on January 6

Having chronicled the tale of a shady plan to challenge Joe Biden’s election when Congress meets to certify it on January 6, I was not surprised to find it’s going to the next level, as I explained at New York:

In early December, Republican Alabama congressman Mo Brooks let it be known that he planned to challenge Joe Biden’s election win when Congress convened on January 6 to execute the typically pro forma task of counting and confirming the Electoral College vote. Under the provisions of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a challenge to any state’s electoral votes from one House and one Senate member triggers a two-hour debate in both chambers and then a vote in both houses on the challenge. Only if a majority of members in both houses vote to sustain the challenge does it have any effect. Given the impossibility of that happening, as Democrats control the House, the main effect of the gambit would be to force every Republican in Congress to go on record as crediting or discrediting Trump’s absurd claims that he actually won the election by a landslide.

For that very reason Mitch McConnell has strongly discouraged the members of his conference from joining Brooks in his gesture and triggering an actual debate and vote on January 6. But it was probably just a matter of time before the prospect of maximum appreciation from Trump and the praise of hard-core MAGA bravos led a senator to break ranks, and one of the prime suspects all along has made it official, tweeting: “Millions of voters concerned about election integrity deserve to be heard. I will object on January 6 on their behalf.”

Yes, the junior senator from Missouri, often described as a potential leader of a post-Trump “conservative populist” wing of the GOP, is fishing in the troubled waters of election-fraud conspiracy theories. In a statement he made a so’s-your-old-man claim that he’s just following precedents set by Democrats after the 2004 and 2016 elections. In the latter year there were protests from a smattering of House Democrats during the announcement of the electoral votes certifying Trump’s win, but no senator joined them, and as it happens, Joe Biden (who presided over the joint session of Congress as vice-president) shut down efforts to talk about election disputes from the floor. In 2005, a senator (Barbara Boxer) did join a House Democrat (Ohio’s Stephanie Tubbs Jones) in objecting to Ohio’s electoral vote based on concerns about voting-machine irregularities; this triggered a debate, but the protesters made it clear they weren’t actually challenging the outcome. More to the point, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry did not support the protest at all. It was a very different kettle of fish from today’s Trump-supported election-coup effort. If there is any analog at all to this situation, it would be the 2000 election, when Al Gore quickly conceded defeat after the Supreme Court shut down the Florida recount that might have reverse the outcome there, and then presided over the joint session of Congress that confirmed George W. Bush’s dubious win without much of a peep of protest — even though Gore, like Biden this year, unquestionably won the popular vote.

While the Brooks/Hawley gambit is bad news for every Republican in Congress who does not want to displease Trump, which means most of them, the pol placed most dangerously in the spotlight is Mike Pence, who like Gore in 2000 and Biden in 2016 will preside over the joint session of Congress on January 6 and will be responsible for announcing electors from each state (though he could delegate that chore to clerks).

It has been reported that Pence has been present at White House meetings involving January 6 plotters like Brooks, along with Trump and his lawyers. One of those plotters, extremist Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, has filed a federal lawsuit aimed at declaring the Electoral Count Act of 1887 an unconstitutional limitation on Pence’s power to decide which electors deserve recognition (whether or not they have been state-certified as the Electoral Count Act provides, cutting off all later challenges). Nobody expects the suit to get a hearing before January 6, but its intended purpose may have been to smoke out Pence on his relative willingness to steal the election by “announcing” fake Trump electoral slates from close states as the actual winners. Now Politico is reporting that Pence rejected an opportunity to join in Gohmert’s suit (he is in fact the named defendant, since he’s the one who will supervise whatever happens on January 6).

So barring some reversal by Brooks and Hawley, the circus is definitely coming to Washington on January 6, and in the center ring Mike Pence may be forced to choose between his clear constitutional duty and pressure to tug his forelock one last time to the man who lifted him to the vice-presidency. If Pence does try to claim electors for Trump in states won by Biden, we could have a full-on constitutional crisis, or more likely a repudiation of Pence by both houses of Congress. As for the “debate” over Team Trump’s claims, it clearly won’t involve any more evidence than the allegations already rejected by federal and state courts from sea to shining sea.


The Trump Election Coup Circus Will Come to Congress on January 6

Having chronicled the tale of a shady plan to challenge Joe Biden’s election when Congress meets to certify it on January 6, I was not surprised to find it’s going to the next level, as I explained at New York:

In early December, Republican Alabama congressman Mo Brooks let it be known that he planned to challenge Joe Biden’s election win when Congress convened on January 6 to execute the typically pro forma task of counting and confirming the Electoral College vote. Under the provisions of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a challenge to any state’s electoral votes from one House and one Senate member triggers a two-hour debate in both chambers and then a vote in both houses on the challenge. Only if a majority of members in both houses vote to sustain the challenge does it have any effect. Given the impossibility of that happening, as Democrats control the House, the main effect of the gambit would be to force every Republican in Congress to go on record as crediting or discrediting Trump’s absurd claims that he actually won the election by a landslide.

For that very reason Mitch McConnell has strongly discouraged the members of his conference from joining Brooks in his gesture and triggering an actual debate and vote on January 6. But it was probably just a matter of time before the prospect of maximum appreciation from Trump and the praise of hard-core MAGA bravos led a senator to break ranks, and one of the prime suspects all along has made it official, tweeting: “Millions of voters concerned about election integrity deserve to be heard. I will object on January 6 on their behalf.”

Yes, the junior senator from Missouri, often described as a potential leader of a post-Trump “conservative populist” wing of the GOP, is fishing in the troubled waters of election-fraud conspiracy theories. In a statement he made a so’s-your-old-man claim that he’s just following precedents set by Democrats after the 2004 and 2016 elections. In the latter year there were protests from a smattering of House Democrats during the announcement of the electoral votes certifying Trump’s win, but no senator joined them, and as it happens, Joe Biden (who presided over the joint session of Congress as vice-president) shut down efforts to talk about election disputes from the floor. In 2005, a senator (Barbara Boxer) did join a House Democrat (Ohio’s Stephanie Tubbs Jones) in objecting to Ohio’s electoral vote based on concerns about voting-machine irregularities; this triggered a debate, but the protesters made it clear they weren’t actually challenging the outcome. More to the point, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry did not support the protest at all. It was a very different kettle of fish from today’s Trump-supported election-coup effort. If there is any analog at all to this situation, it would be the 2000 election, when Al Gore quickly conceded defeat after the Supreme Court shut down the Florida recount that might have reverse the outcome there, and then presided over the joint session of Congress that confirmed George W. Bush’s dubious win without much of a peep of protest — even though Gore, like Biden this year, unquestionably won the popular vote.

While the Brooks/Hawley gambit is bad news for every Republican in Congress who does not want to displease Trump, which means most of them, the pol placed most dangerously in the spotlight is Mike Pence, who like Gore in 2000 and Biden in 2016 will preside over the joint session of Congress on January 6 and will be responsible for announcing electors from each state (though he could delegate that chore to clerks).

It has been reported that Pence has been present at White House meetings involving January 6 plotters like Brooks, along with Trump and his lawyers. One of those plotters, extremist Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, has filed a federal lawsuit aimed at declaring the Electoral Count Act of 1887 an unconstitutional limitation on Pence’s power to decide which electors deserve recognition (whether or not they have been state-certified as the Electoral Count Act provides, cutting off all later challenges). Nobody expects the suit to get a hearing before January 6, but its intended purpose may have been to smoke out Pence on his relative willingness to steal the election by “announcing” fake Trump electoral slates from close states as the actual winners. Now Politico is reporting that Pence rejected an opportunity to join in Gohmert’s suit (he is in fact the named defendant, since he’s the one who will supervise whatever happens on January 6).

So barring some reversal by Brooks and Hawley, the circus is definitely coming to Washington on January 6, and in the center ring Mike Pence may be forced to choose between his clear constitutional duty and pressure to tug his forelock one last time to the man who lifted him to the vice-presidency. If Pence does try to claim electors for Trump in states won by Biden, we could have a full-on constitutional crisis, or more likely a repudiation of Pence by both houses of Congress. As for the “debate” over Team Trump’s claims, it clearly won’t involve any more evidence than the allegations already rejected by federal and state courts from sea to shining sea.