Republicans have made it clear throughout the impeachment investigation that they’ve decided to circle the wagons around Trump. This united opposition combined with the defensive posturing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shows it’s almost certain the Senate will not vote to remove Trump. But despite warnings by Republicans to the contrary, impeachment has already hurt Trump. And impeachment will continue to hurt Republicans, from pausing McConnell’s stuffing of the courts, to providing yet more airtime to Trump’s crimes, to creating the legacy of impeachment that will tarnish Trump’s political legacy.
Republicans have always been desperate to convince the media that impeachment would make Trump stronger. Polling shows the opposite has been true. Most Americans actually opposed impeachment prior to the Ukraine scandal snowballing. But since September 28, shortly after the Ukraine scandal snowballed, more Americans supported impeachment than opposed it. As of December 12, 47.5 percent of Americans support impeaching Trump, with 45.8 percent opposed, according to an aggregation of polls by FiveThirtyEight. Trump’s approval rating has also taken a hit since the impeachment investigation began. On September 24, the day House Speaker Pelosi announced the impeachment investigation, FiveThirtyEight listed Trump’s aggregate approval rating at 43.1 percent. It’s been below that number ever since, and as of December 13, sits at 41.9 percent.
Trump’s disapproval rating is double digits higher than former president Bill Clinton’s was during the height of the 1998 impeachment investigation. After the 1998 Starr report accused Clinton of lying under oath, 36 percent disapproved of Clinton. Trump’s disapproval ratings at a similar point are 17.5 points higher: Six days after the Dec 9th release of the House Intelligence Trump-Ukraine impeachment report, Trump’s disapproval sat at 53.5 percent.
Bill Clinton’s disapproval rating actually decreased following the Starr report. Clinton’s disapproval rating was just 27 percent on December 19, 1998, the day the House approved two impeachment articles against him. Trump has thus far seen no such support; his disapproval rating has hovered around 53 percent in the last week, and seems likely to remain there through the House vote on impeachment.
Forcing the Senate to hold a trial over Trump’s removal will temporarily obstruct Mitch McConnell’s singular obsession: stuffing our courts with young, radically conservative ideologues. As David Dayen noted in The American Prospect, the likely month-long Senate removal trial will “last six hours a day, six days a week, leaving far less room for judicial confirmations.”
McConnell has been driving the Senate to confirm judges at a breakneck pace. Politico reporter Burgess Everett noted that President Barack Obama confirmed 55 Circuit judges in 8 years; Trump has confirmed 50 in just three. McConnell is trying to get even more done before the end of next year, with 18 judicial nominations planned for this week. McConnell has been so successful in part because he reduced the Senate debate time on judges from thirty hours per nominee to just two. Many of the nominations were vacant in the first place because the prior Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, honored a tradition known as “blue slips,” which allowed a Senator from the same state as the nominated judge to shut down the process if they wished. The Republicans have extended the Democrats no such courtesy, and now Trump has confirmed over 170 judges.
The Senate trial will put a pause on these nominations. And as Dayen points out, McConnell may want to draw the trial out in order to hurt the five Senators running in the Democratic primary, as they will have to be present for the trial, and not out on the campaign trail. But the longer the trial lasts, the less time McConnell has and the fewer judges he can jam through.
The trial in the Senate also presents the Democrats with a massive opportunity to further tell the story of Trump’s crimes. The Democrats will be able to make their case throughout the weeks of the trial, calling witnesses and arguing that Trump committed obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. This will inflict further pain on the Republican Senators facing difficult re-elections in 2020. Arizona Senator Martha McSally is trailing her Democratic opponent Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Kelly led McSally 47 percent to 44 percent in a poll of likely Arizona voters conducted Dec 3-4. Republican Senator Cory Gardner also faces a tough re-election. A December 4 poll from Keating Research showed only 33 percent of Colorado voters have a favorable view of Gardner (to 45 percent unfavorable). His favorability rating in Colorado is even lower than Trump’s, who is rated favorably by only 37 percent of Colorado voters. And Maine Senator Susan Collins still hasn’t publicly said whether she’s running for re-election or not, but if she does, there is a $3.8 million pot of money waiting for whoever is successful in the Democratic primary, thanks to her support for Brett Kavanaugh. Supporting Trump in the Senate trial will come at a real cost to these three Republican Senators.
But the impact of impeachment will be felt well past the 2020 elections. No one knows this better than Hillary Clinton, who came to the 2016 election as a candidate with immense baggage in part because of the lasting legacy of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Hillary Clinton herself has implicitly acknowledged this, describing the ire on the right directed against the Clintons as a “vast right wing conspiracy” that was “even better funded” in 2016. And justified or not, the endurance of the hatred against the Clintons writ large cannot be understated. “What about Bill Clinton” became a common refrain among conservatives and the media in the 2016 election following the Access Hollywood tape showing Trump bragging about sexual assault. The refrain continued through the Kavanaugh nomination.
Trump has more potential political heirs than Bill Clinton did in 1998, with his children Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr., and his son-in-law Jared Kushner all showing their immense appetite for political power. Thus there are more people to be tarnished in the wave of sentiment that will inevitably flow for the same number of decades that it has chased the Clintons. So while McConnell’s recent proclamations that he’s “coordinating” with White House lawyers makes a fair trial seem impossible, the political pain will still be felt by Trump and the GOP. And he knows it, which is probably why Trump has been re-tweeting his supporters at a record pace in the last week. On December 8, Trump tweeted or retweeted 105 times. But he topped that on December 12, with 123 tweets, which was more than former President Obama sent on the @POTUS account for an entire year.
In addition to the pause in the Republican takeover of the courts, Trump’s approval ratings will likely fall further as the scandal continues to dominate the headlines. Senators in purple states could withdraw support for Trump as they see the effect on their poll numbers. With the lasting stain that impeachment would have on his legacy, Trump could be paying a price for a long time to come.