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Republicans Have Four Options on Trump and Ukraine. They’re All Bad.

September 23, 2019
Republicans Have Four Options on Trump and Ukraine. They’re All Bad.
US President Donald Trump's hair shines as he speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

If you want hot Ukrainian content, you should go read Bill Kristol on how Congress can start working and Charlie Sykes on the stress test this is creating for our system

I want to look at something else: How are Republicans going to deal with Trump on this? I don’t mean the bad-faith actors. Breitbart is gonna Breitbart.

But if you’re a serious Republican who thinks about the party and power more institutionally than personally, what do you do now?

(1) Be quiet. As Philip Rotner underscored last week, it’s possible there’s nothing here:

If this were a Hitchcock movie, the whistleblower’s report would be the MacGuffin, the thing that everybody wants. We don’t know what’s in it, but we know that it’s important enough to cause the whistleblower to report it, the IG to deem it urgent, and Trump to bury it. Everyone is deeply concerned about this briefcase that, for all we know, could contain either a bomb or a sheaf of blank paper.

That’s still the case today, even now that we have additional reporting and Trump’s admission that he talked about Biden with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Until there’s a serious investigation, nobody will actually know, for completely sure, how serious this incident is.

(2) Attack Biden. If you know nothing about this story, you could be fooled into thinking that what Trump did and what Biden did are the same thing. They’re not. Like really, really not.

For one thing, the Obama administration was trying to get a corrupt prosecutor removed so that a more aggressive prosecutor would take over. For another, this was counter to the interests of Hunter Biden’s client. It’s exactly the opposite of what Biden would have done if he had been trying to help out his son’s business.

But you’ll never go broke betting against the reading comprehension of the American people. And if you can weaken Biden enough so that Elizabeth Warren can overtake him for the Democratic nomination, then suddenly Trump has the best-possible matchup for 2020.

Take a look at the polling data: of the more than 70 head-to-head polls on Trump versus Biden taken so far, Biden has led Every. Single. One. As Harry Enten notes, “I’m not sure folks appreciate how unusual Biden holding a 10+ pt lead on Trump is at this point. No incumbent since at least WWII was down by anything close to that at this point.”

With that in mind, if you’re Team Trump and you have a chance to hurt Biden now so that you don’t have to face him later and all it costs you is another possible impeachment scandal, is that an obviously bad gamble?

I mean, there’s a reason you haven’t heard the word “Pocahontas” for a long while. Trump desperately wants to face Warren in the general election.

(3) Dare to impeach. Would impeachment be the worst thing for Trump?

The general public does not seem to appreciate what a deep hole Trump is in electorally. The guy he is most likely to face next November is on track to beat him like a drum. He trails most of his other possible opponents, too. The economy is softening. And Republican office-holders are retiring left and right, because whatever Conservatism Inc. says, the rats always know when the ship is taking on water.

In order for Trump to get better odds, something needs to change. An impeachment fight—or even a fight about impeachment—could be that something.

Imagine that Democrats decide to pursue impeachment. Maybe it turns out badly for Trump. But how much worse could things get? In some polls against Biden he’s not even breaking 40 percent. Could he drop to 35 percent? I guess. But so what?

My point is that his downside is limited. When your approval rating is as low as Trump’s, you only have so far to fall.

On the other hand, maybe the Democrats bungle it. Maybe the least attractive members of the caucus get the most attention. Maybe the public doesn’t want to go through an impeachment because the election is right around the corner and they’re exhausted and want less drama, not more.

Or maybe the intra-party fight over whether or not to impeach tears the Democrats apart. Maybe it boosts the more radical presidential candidates. Maybe it depresses enthusiasm or causes a leadership fight.

Point is: There are only a couple ways things could get worse for Trump via impeachment. But there are plenty of ways things could get better if the status quo is destabilized.

(4) Go Wiggins. Representative Charles Wiggins is the Republican who more or less brought down Nixon. It’s possible that some group of elected Republicans could go to Trump and persuade him not to seek reelection. Or to resign.

The Man Who Took Down Nixon

But honestly, I doubt that. One of the reasons Republicans were able to pressure Nixon to resign was that they knew Nixon cared about the institution of the Republican party.

Another reason is that they knew that Nixon would go away and keep quiet in a self-imposed exile after his presidency. He wasn’t going to spend his winter years taking shots at Wiggins and Goldwater and Ford on Twitter 15 times a day.

Neither of those assumptions are operable with Trump.

There are only two reasons that Republican officeholders would take sides against Trump from here forward: Because they care about the long-term health of the party and because they think it’s the right thing to do.

There are incentives along these vectors, to be sure. But they’re pretty far down the list for the Republicans left in national office.

They’re probably going to stick with Trump. To the end.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.