After Helsinki, can Trump count on protection from the GOP Senate?

U.S. President Donald Trump awaits the start of a meeting with members of the U.S. Congress at the White House in Washington, July 17, 2018.   REUTERS/Leah Millis - RC1C1DA39DE0

Forty-four years ago this summer, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater walked into the Oval Office and told Republican President Richard Nixon that they didn’t have the votes in the Senate to save his presidency. Nixon resigned ahead of impeachment and saved himself a trial in the Senate.

The uproar over President Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin has re-opened suspicions that the Russians have something on him and that he could be guilty of serious, impeachable crimes. If there turns out to be a case for impeachment, the House will vote on articles of impeachment and, if a majority of the House approves at least one article, the Senate will conduct a trial. Since impeachment is a political as well as a legal process, the president’s fate is decided by who has the votes.

Conviction in the Senate needs a supermajority of 67 votes, which means that a significant number of Republicans would need to vote to convict their president. Right now there are 47 Democrats and 2 independents who caucus with the Democrats. So, assuming that these numbers stay about the same after the November elections and assuming that all the Democrats and independents vote to convict, President Trump could be in trouble only if 18 Republicans desert him.

How likely is this? To many Americans the Republican Party has been a tame lapdog to their controversial president. Too many of them are afraid of antagonizing the loyal base that still supports Trump and worry the consequence of opposing the president is a loss in a Republican primary. But a careful look at the Republican Senate shows that there is a core group of Republican Senators who have been quite willing to go against Trump. To equate their opposition with a vote to convict is a stretch but opposition to Trump does exist. Last summer I counted twelve Republican senators who had shown a willingness to cross the president on Obamacare and on the budget. Trump’s reaction was to insult his fellow Republicans, calling them “fools” and “total quitters.” Interestingly enough they did not care.

A week later the president was embroiled in an ugly public fight with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, blaming him for the Senate’s failure to repeal Obamacare. McConnell fought back and the number of Republican Senators willing to cross swords with the president then rose to 13. Trump’s tendency to insult and demean those who disagree with him means that he could have fewer friends than he thinks he does in a fight.

A few months later, in October, the Washington Post did a more thorough analysis of the Republican Senate. Looking at the Senators’ statements on the firing of Comey, the repeal of Obamacare, the budget and their overall rhetoric towards Trump, they found a hard core of true believers. Those included now-unseated-Senator Luther Strange of Alabama, who said “President Trump is the greatest thing that’s happened to this country. I consider it a Biblical miracle that he’s there.” Others were neutral, and there were 16 senators who were the most critical of Trump. Among them was Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee who called the White House “an adult day care center.”

And then, this week, came the Helsinki press conference that reignited suspicions about Trump all over again. By my count 14 Republican Senators condemned Trump specifically in their statements. Senator John McCain (Ariz.) said, “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” Another 24 condemned Putin, thereby avoiding direct criticism of their President. Senator Cory Gardner (Colo.) said, “Whether it be chemical attacks on allied soil, the invasion of Ukraine, propping up the murderer Assad in Syria or meddling in our elections through cyber attacks, Vladimir Putin’s Russia remains an adversary to the United States.” Only two supported Trump, and others made no statements at all.

So it looks like “the Republican Senate as lapdogs” refrain isn’t quite as homogeneous as some would have us believe. For a year now there have been around 14 Senators willing to cross swords with the President. Of course two of them, Senator Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Senator Bob Corker (Tenn.) are not running again and thus won’t be voting next year. And the most critical of all, Senator John McCain, has terminal cancer and his future in the Senate is uncertain. But Mitt Romney is likely to be elected in Utah this November, and he and the Mormons who support him have been the most critical of Trump out of the entire Republican base. Plus, Democrats may pick up a seat or two.

There are two ways to look at the history of Republican opposition to Trump in the Senate so far. First is the fact that a vote against a piece of presidential legislation does not necessarily translate into a vote to remove a president of your own party from office. There is no guarantee that the fourteen or so Republicans who have defied Trump in the past would do it when it really counted. However, the flip side of this is that if a Republican Senator is willing to stand up to a Republican president on a policy issue like health care, he or she might be even more willing to stand up to a president if evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors” is persuasive.

In other words, it’s not impossible to imagine enough Republicans voting with Democrats to convict Trump in the Senate. Forty-five years after Barry Goldwater had to hand Richard Nixon the bad news, it is not out of the question that another Republican may have to do the same to Donald Trump.