Last week was widely held to be the darkest of President Donald Trump’s presidency. His longtime former attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation — paying off Trump mistresses in what amounted to an illegal campaign contribution — and indicated Trump put him up to it. It was, some said, the beginning of the end.
Well, the end may come. But this is not the beginning of it. Trump is not going to be forced out of office because of infidelity (which he has denied). Congress has been down that road before — and it led nowhere.
Trump’s voters are not going to abandon him over this issue, just as President Bill Clinton’s didn’t when he faced impeachment in 1998. Given that Congress decides on impeachment and it is essentially a political act, Congress will respond to the demands of voters — enough of them, anyway — and leave Trump in the Oval Office.
Trump’s voters are not going to abandon him over this issue, just as President Bill Clinton’s didn’t when he faced impeachment in 1998.
A president does not leave office when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., decides he needs to go — even if she becomes speaker of the House. He does not leave office if he loses some Republican House members in swing districts. He does not even leave if he loses the Republican majority in the Senate, where conviction requires a two-thirds vote on impeachment charges — and the backing of more than half the members in the House.
No, a president is forced from office only when enough senators from his own party decide that he must go. That’s why President Richard M. Nixon resigned. And it’s why Clinton did not.
In August 1974, just after the White House released the “smoking gun” tape that showed Nixon had participated in the Watergate cover-up, the president was still undecided about whether to resign. He had yet to be impeached — but that was coming. The House Judiciary committee had already dispatched articles of impeachment and approval on the floor was all but certain.
On Aug. 7, 1974 at about 5:00 pm, the highly respected Republican Sen. Barry M. Goldwater journeyed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House along with the top GOP leaders of the Senate and the House to tell Nixon that he had the support of only about 15 senators. It was no political skin off their hides. Nixon’s approval rating was at 24 percent, meaning that many Republican voters had already abandoned him. Nixon realized his presidency was over — and he announced his resignation the next day.
Clinton faced a very different dynamic. On Dec. 19, 1998, the day he was impeached by the House, Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri led dozens of House Democrats to the White House in a show of support.
“We’ve just witnessed a partisan vote that was a disgrace to our country,” Gephardt said defiantly just outside the Oval Office as Clinton looked on. On Jan. 7, 1999, all 45 Senate Democrats voted “not guilty” on the charges, along with five Republicans. Clinton’s approval rating stood at 67 percent, meaning the vast majority of Democratic voters continued to support him, and at least some Republicans did too.
In each case, the political process reflected the will of the voters. What the Republicans who tried to oust Clinton didn’t understand was that the American voters who elected him fully understood who they were getting when they voted him into the White House. They were not nearly as shocked by his affair with Monica Lewinsky as Republicans lawmakers assumed they would be.
The voters knew Clinton was a rake and a dissembler. But they decided the country needed him anyway. Republicans failed to respect the choice the people had made.
Democrats, and any Washington analysts and reporters who think Trump is headed back to Trump Tower, are making much the same mistake today. According to a Pew Research poll taken just prior to the 2016 election, 40 percent of Republicans said they didn’t think Trump would set a high moral standard for the presidency — but nearly all of them voted for him anyway. A repeat of the poll released this August showed that 47 percent of Republicans now believe Trump has failed to set a high moral standard for the presidency.
And yet, Trump still remains wildly popular with his base.
A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that 93 percent of those who voted for Trump approve of his performance. Even as the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller has slogged along, Trump's overall approval ratings rose steadily during the first half of the year and stabilized over the summer.
“I went through impeachment with President Clinton,” said former Clinton pollster Mark Penn during a Fox News appearance on August 24. “These issues about what happened with women, if they are consensual and legal activities, can’t be turned into crimes — and the American people won’t stand for that.”
Like a stock that doesn’t go down after a company is hit with bad — but expected — news, Trump’s unsavory qualities are already built into his value to conservative voters. In 2016 they understood that his ethics often conflicted with theirs, but decided that the country was in such dire shape and peril that his policies, his eagerness to flout political incorrectness and his fearlessness were so desperately needed that they would overlook his flaws.
That doesn’t change for them just because of allegations that he cheated on his spouse or violated campaign finance laws any more than it did for Clinton’s supporters when he was accused of the more serious crime of perjury.
So if Trump wants a new shade of gold behind him in the Oval Office for his second two years, he can still start measuring the drapes.