KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Even as a new president is inaugurated today, the outgoing president looms large.
— As Senate Republicans ponder how to vote in the Trump impeachment trial, they may be incentivized to move the party past Trump as they seek to recapture power in Washington next year.
Given Donald Trump’s ability to dominate the news both before and during his presidency, it is perhaps not surprising that he remains the subject of the most immediately pressing political question in Washington: Should Senate Republicans use the pending impeachment trial in the Senate to forbid the outgoing president from holding public office again?
Practically speaking, that’s what the stakes of the looming impeachment trial are, which will begin sometime in the coming days (after Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi passes the article of impeachment to the Senate). Trump will no longer be president at noon Wednesday, and thus he cannot be removed from office. But if Trump is convicted by a two-thirds vote in the upper chamber, the Senate can then ban Trump from holding office in the future through a simple majority vote.
The decision may largely be up to one man: the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The conventional wisdom, which strikes us as sensible, is that if McConnell backs impeachment, he will be able to find 16 other Republicans to come along with him. That, along with all 50 Senate Democrats, is what it would take to convict the president in the impeachment trial, opening the door to the vote banning Trump from holding public office. If McConnell balks at conviction, this impeachment trial likely will end the same way last year’s did, with Trump acquitted.
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, McConnell said the Jan. 6 pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol “was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
Some of those who would benefit the most from Trump being disqualified from running again — those who want the GOP presidential nomination for themselves in 2024 — have been some of the president’s biggest defenders in recent weeks. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) were two of the ringleaders of the effort to question election results from Arizona and Pennsylvania in the Electoral College certification, which was interrupted by the Capitol sacking. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), another possible presidential candidate and the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, voted in favor of the objection to the Pennsylvania results. Non-Trump Republican presidential contenders logically should want Trump out of the way for 2024, but they likely feel that if they are seen as anti-Trump, they won’t be able to win the nomination.
In other words, those with future presidential aspirations in the GOP likely will stick with the president, leaving it up to Republican members of the Senate whose aspirations do not go beyond that chamber to block Trump from seeking the Republican nomination in 2024.
One also wonders if there may be some sort of de facto barrier erected against Trump running again even if he is not convicted in a Senate trial and subsequently disqualified. One possibility, as suggested by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) in a revelatory interview last week with Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato, would be if Congress enacted a requirement that any presidential nominee publicly release 10 years of tax returns, something Kaine suggests Trump would not do.
Trump’s approval with Republicans remains strong, but among the broader populace, the president is limping to the finish line. A raft of national polling on Trump’s approval has been released over the last several days, and Trump’s approval rating has sagged to an average of 39% approve/57% disapprove in the FiveThirtyEight average. The spread was 45% approve/53% disapprove on Election Day.
It’s reasonable to believe that Trump’s real level of approval may be higher than conventional polls suggest. The first bit of evidence comes from the election results themselves: Trump lost the national popular vote 51%-47%, so he ran a little ahead of his approval. The national exit poll conducted by Edison Research for many major media outlets found that Trump’s approval with the electorate was 50% approve/49% disapprove; another poll of the electorate, the VoteCast, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for the Associated Press and Fox News, found Trump’s approval with the electorate as 47% approve/53% disapprove. So the pre-election polling probably understated Trump’s approval rating.
However, whatever Trump’s “real” approval number is, it’s likely lower now than it was at the time of the election.
As McConnell and other Senate Republicans ponder what they should do about Trump, they also have to consider what impact their actions might have on Trump’s position within the party. Part of what has sustained Trump, arguably, is that Republicans have generally stayed in lockstep with him. Trump had no presidential primary challenge of note, and Republicans almost uniformly backed him in the impeachment process in late 2019 and early 2020: No House Republican backed impeachment, and only Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) voted to convict Trump in the Senate trial.
This time, 10 House Republicans voted in favor of impeachment, and, in all likelihood, more than just Romney will vote to convict in the Senate. Could a public break with Trump from some leading Republicans create more of a so-called “permission structure” for Republican voters to break with Trump, too? Or will Republicans who vote against Trump be punished by voters? Would Trump hurt Republicans in other ways, such as by creating a third party, which he reportedly has discussed according to the Wall Street Journal? These questions are what Senate Republicans have to ponder, and it’s hard to know the answers in advance of whatever decision they make in the Senate trial.
We suspect that the full story of the Jan. 6 Capitol disgrace has yet to be told. The Senate trial may help to fill out the story and determine how culpable Trump, his allies, and other elected officials were in what happened. That could move public opinion, too.
This leads to yet another important, unanswerable question: How long will the events of Jan. 6 linger in the broader political consciousness?
To us, the scene represented the most alarming sight on American soil since 9/11. But we also cannot assume that others will feel the same way. The 2022 midterm is still well in the future, and the issues that will animate that election are a mystery.
From a historical perspective, just an average midterm performance by Republicans would be more than enough to flip both chambers of Congress next year. Republicans will need to net just a single seat in the Senate and a half-dozen or so in the House. Since World War II, the president’s party has lost an average of 27 House seats and 3.5 Senate seats in midterms, although individual yearly results have varied widely.
Joe Biden, as president, could end up presiding over a strong economic recovery as the nation (we hope) eventually leaves COVID-19 in the rearview mirror. A divided GOP with Trump remaining a major and divisive figure could lead to outcomes like we saw in the Georgia Senate runoffs, with an engaged, united Democratic Party fending off a slightly less engaged and united GOP. That is one midterm possibility; there are others that would be better for the GOP.
On this, the day of Biden’s inauguration, we find ourselves still fixated on the man leaving office, Trump. This is much as it was during the campaign, when Trump and his allies sought to make the election about Biden, to insufficient avail. The best midterm results for the presidential out-party typically come when they can make the election a negative referendum on the president and/or the president’s party.
The first order of business for Republicans in 2021, thus, probably should be working toward making sure the midterm isn’t a referendum on the final days of the Trump presidency.