The running conservative response to the revelations about Trump and his sleazy phone call with the Ukraine president is that it’s a big fat nothingburger and that Speaker Pelosi and the Trump-hating Democrats have overplayed their hand with a formal impeachment inquiry. From at least one fellow pundit in the Washington Post: No one cares except for the tiny percentage of Americans who watch MSNBC and CNN.
Well, what did you expect them to say? That Trump has finally crossed the line? That he has abused his power by trying to shake down another head of state for dirt on the Biden family? The Republicans always take this president’s side. And you know what? They did in Nixon’s day, too. No one considered the Watergate burglary to amount to anything; the year it occurred, 1972, Nixon won re-election in a landslide. Through the year, his approval rating climbed to over 60 percent, and it hit 67 percent in January 1973. But after the Senate investigated the Watergate matter that summer, in a series of hearings that were televised, and after Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor that October, his fierce Republican support started to erode. You know why? Because some Republicans in Congress had integrity. It was a different country in 1972-1974; many Republicans were moderate conservatives who understood and embraced the Constitution and believed in law and order. There was no “cult of Nixon” as there is a cult of Trump today.
But there was something else that compelled Republican leaders, including the father of Maryland’s current governor, to fall away from Nixon: Public opinion. Nixon’s approval rating went into freefall in 1973, and by the time he resigned in August 1974, his approval rating was at 25 percent.
Conservative commentators and Trump apologists might think they have their fingers on the pulse of the people of the hinterland — the white, blue-collar, Christian midsection of America that went for Trump in 2016 — and they might dismiss Ukrainegate for its lack of quid pro quo; they might think most Americans will be offended by an impeachment inquiry. But that is all wishful thinking.
Trump is so arrogant that he believes now, and believed when he made his phone call to Zelensky in July (post-Mueller), that he could get away with anything — that he could get the president of a country waiting for millions of dollars in military aid to work with his personal attorney and the U.S. Attorney General to scandalize the Biden family. The release of the summary of the Trump-Zelensky phone call might have been Trump’s way of saying to the nation: Yeah, I did something sleazy, and so what?
But, just as televised hearings and consistent news reporting of Nixon administration misdeeds led to the downfall of that president, it will with Trump. And Democrats should gather all evidence of Trump’s corruption, including his attempts to obstruct the Mueller investigation, and put it before the public.
I hear people mention Bill Clinton’s popularity, and how he probably could have won a third term after his impeachment in 1998. His approval rating went up after the Republicans tried to run him out of office for — and allow me to refresh memories here — lying under oath and obstruction of justice, charges that stemmed from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by Paula Jones. But you know what? Clinton was already a popular president. His approval ratings ran from 58 to 60 percent in the year of his re-election, 1996, and continued to climb through the Lewinsky affair and into the period of impeachment. He closed out at 66 percent, according to Gallup.
So the Trump-Clinton comparison does not hold for two major reasons — Clinton was already a popular president (Trump is not) and the charges brought against him were seen as petty, personal and partisan. The potential charges against Trump might be partisan — let’s concede some of that — but they are not petty and they are not personal. They are profoundly offensive, if not criminal, and they involve the abuse of the public trust, using the power of the presidency to leverage some dirt from a foreign government on one of Trump’s domestic rivals.
Republicans and their conservative chorus will downplay this matter every day. Get used to hearing it. And if Trump is impeached and the Republican-led Senate refuses to convict before the 2020 election, Trump will emerge as a martyr only to his base. To everyone else, he will be thoroughly and formally exposed as the sleaze that he is, and voters — specifically independents, the many Democrats who did not vote in 2016, and perhaps even some Republicans — will feel compelled to do what McConnell, Graham and other Trump suckups refuse to do: Hand him an eviction notice.