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GOP’s Senate Majority Could Be in Peril, Thanks to Trump

As Trump’s behavior gets more erratic, the GOP is showing signs of distancing itself from the president.

A group of Republican senators and Vice President Mike Pence listen as President Trump speaks to the media at the U.S. Capitol on January 9, 2019.

The pressure against Trump continues to mount in the impeachment investigation. The testimony of William Taylor, the Trump-appointed U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, confirmed that Trump held congressionally approved aid to Ukraine hostage in order to try to extort Ukranian-led “investigations” into Democrats. Meanwhile two close associates of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani have been arrested on campaign finance charges and were reported to have helped Trump pressure Ukraine to investigate Democrats.

White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitted to a room full of reporters that the Ukraine aid was withheld in order to seek an investigation, and the press should “get over it,” then tried to walk back his comments hours later. European Union Ambassador and Trump donor Gordon Sondland admitted to House Committees that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was, in fact, a quid pro quo. And on Friday, a federal court ruled that the House impeachment inquiry was legal.

The terrible headlines for Trump didn’t slow over the weekend. Despite Trump’s announcement Sunday that U.S. special forces had killed ISIS (also known as Daesh) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the president was greeted with thunderous boos during his visit to Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., for Game 5 of the World series. During the game, three separateImpeach Trumpbanners were dropped, and a “Veterans for Impeachment” sign was held up directly behind home plate.

But it isn’t just a deluge of bad headlines; polls also continue to move against Trump. While Republican support for Trump remains stubborn, there is movement. Quinnipiac polling shows that from September 25-October 23, Republican opposition to impeachment dropped by four points, from 95 percent opposed (and 4 percent in favor) to 91 percent opposed (and 6 percent in favor). Meanwhile, over the same time period, support for impeachment among Independents jumped a staggering 24 points: from 34 percent to 58 percent. Among Democrats, it rose from 73 percent to 93 percent.

Trump’s initial move to stymie the impeachment investigation was yet another instance of his signature bullying. Trump administration attorneys told both former and current officials that they were barred from testifying. But a slew of officials have ignored this legally dubious demand, and instead complied with congressional subpoenas. While Trump loyalists like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence continue to defy congressional subpoenas, more officials than not have complied. The only response Trump loyalists have had is to literally storm the hearings and attempt to stop them. They succeeded only in delaying the deposition of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia Laura Cooper by five hours.

Another bad sign for Trump is reports that Republican donors are starting to express concerns, and even moving their money to potential challengers. The Washington Post reported on October 13 that “Some Republican donors and officials worried that Trump’s [Syria] decision would trap them in an untenable situation.”

When concerns are voiced by Republican elected officials without the cover of anonymity, they thus far have tended to come from those not seeking re-election. Rep. Will Hurd, who announced in August that he wouldn’t seek re-election, said after he heard William Taylor’s testimony, “If you try to use federal resources to benefit yourself — whether that’s getting information on an opponent — that is a crime.” Rep. Francis Rooney, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (and thus privy to impeachment inquiry interview) said he would consider voting to impeach Trump. The next day, he announced that he wasn’t seeking re-election. But while the criticism is still rare among those Republicans who aren’t retiring, it isn’t nonexistent. Trump faced widespread condemnation of his treacherous foreign policy in Syria among the Republican Caucus. On October 16, 129 Republicans joined all the Democrats to rebuke Trump’s Syria withdrawal in a 354-60 vote.

It remains to be seen if the news about the killing of al-Baghdadi will temper Republicans’ criticism of the withdrawal from Syria. One of the House Republicans who’s been most vocal about Trump’s mistakes in Syria and elsewhere has been Rep. Adam Kinzinger — he criticized Trump three times in three weeks (although he praised Trump for a “good call” on al-Baghdadi).

With impeachment in the House nearly inevitable, Trump’s best hope for vindication lies in the Senate, which will act as the jury, and decide whether to convict or acquit Trump following his impeachment by the House. To be removed from office, two-thirds of the Senate would need to vote to convict, which means all Democrats and 20 Republicans — an audaciously high bar. It seems more likely that GOP leadership would find a way, any way, to get Trump to resign, before they’d vote to convict him in the Senate and remove him from office — due to the likely blowback from the 83 percent of Republicans who still approve of Trump. But Republican senators are, for the most part, reluctant to say much about impeachment. An Oct 28 report from The Washington Post quotes multiple Republican senators dodging impeachment questions. Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) said, when pressed about impeachment: “I’m a juror and I’m comfortable not speaking.” Sen. Lamar Alexander echoes this, saying, “I’d be a juror, so I have no comment.”

While many Republican senators are staying mum, Trump’s biggest sycophant in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, is still trying to mount a loud defense of Trump. It hasn’t gone well lately. Graham wanted to send a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserting that Republicans would not remove Trump from office over the Ukraine scandal. But Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) warned Graham that such a letter would endanger Senate Republicans up for re-election in 2020 by committing them to defending Trump. Graham watered down the nonbinding resolution to one that simply states that the House should “vote to open a formal impeachment inquiry” (which is not a requirement), and that Trump should have “fundamental constitutional protections,” but was still unable to get Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), or Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to sign it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t even commit to bringing the resolution to the floor, given it needs 60 votes in order to advance, and currently only has 50 cosponsors, according to Graham.

While Graham is Trump’s loudest defender, McConnell is his most powerful one. But as William Rivers Pitt has noted for Truthout, McConnell “is putting measurable daylight between himself and the Oval Office.” The majority leader wrote an op-ed condemning Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, but the piece didn’t mention Trump by name. Trump claimed that McConnell said the president’s call with Ukraine was “perfect.” But McConnell told reporters, “We’ve not had any conversations on that subject.”

It’s the kind of soft rebuke that doesn’t put McConnell firmly on either side; he’s keeping his options open. And since McConnell’s undying focus is the confirmation of judges, we can probably expect him to continue to protect Trump so long as the president doesn’t imperil the source of those judges: the GOP Senate majority.

The Republicans’ Senate majority looks more imperiled by the day. Democrats only need to gain three seats to break the GOP majority, and signs are growing that Trump’s cascading scandals may cost the very GOP seats McConnell must defend. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado faces a tough re-election in 2020, and a poll from Oct 10-14 showed that in a hypothetical matchup between John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor and likely Democratic challenger, Hickenlooper led Gardner 53 percent to 42 percent.

The same poll showed Trump’s unfavorable rating at 60 percent among the 500 active Colorado voters polled. Republican Susan Collins has only a 35 percent approval (and 50 percent disapproval) rating, and “trails a generic Democrat for reelection 44-41,” according to an Oct 15 poll by Public Policy Polling.

In Arizona, Republican Sen. Martha McSally was appointed to her seat following the death of Sen. John McCain. Astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, Mark Kelly is challenging McSally. While polling post-Ukraine scandal isn’t available for Arizona, an August poll already showed Kelly with a five-point lead, and he’s also outraised McSally three quarters in a row.

In early October, it was reported that Trump was calling McConnell as many as three times a day, enraged by what he sees as disloyalty among the GOP caucus. Of late, McConnell is neither condemning Trump nor outright defending him. That’s not an accident. With at least three vulnerable GOP senators facing a tough 2020 race, and senators not even up for re-election like Murkowski and Romney refusing to endorse Graham’s meaningless resolution, Trump may have more to worry about than ever.

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