At this stage of the Ukraine scandal and impeachment proceedings, there’s no reason to think Donald Trump is in any imminent danger of losing his job. Yes, impeachment by the House is (in my judgment, anyway), more probable than not. But since it would take the defection of 20 Republican senators (and maybe more if any Democrats break ranks) to uphold a conviction, both the prevailing atmosphere of partisan polarization and the proximity of incredibly high-stakes elections make the sort of GOP disarray needed to split the party that badly extremely unlikely, to put it mildly. And the sounds of dissension and distress now emanating from such perpetually squeaky wheels as Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse should not be confused with any widespread revolt.
Still, anything’s possible when it comes to the kind of presidential misconduct impeachment proceedings might unveil. And there’s the Nixon precedent, in which most party members stuck with him until he made himself all but indefensible. As Lee Drutman recently noted, such a reversal could be swift if it happens, though it probably won’t:
If there is a Republican cascade against Trump, in retrospect, it will look inevitable, as if the steady drip of revelations and testimony was always destined to reach that final dramatic tipping point. But a note to future historians: As of this moment, it does not look inevitable at all.
Another possible but unlikely scenario also echoes the Nixon precedent: an embattled and exhausted president resigns rather than facing the music, with or without assurances his successor will protect his predecessor from prosecution. If any president has ever thrived in chaos, it’s this one. But let’s just say for the sake of argument that one way or another Donald Trump is packing his bags for Mar-a-Lago well before his appointed date with the American electorate on November 2 of next year. What would his party, so recently the subject of a hostile takeover by this strange man with his norm-breaking behavior, do then? First, obviously enough, they’d likely look to his vice-president and successor.
Any post-Trump scenario begins with Mike Pence.
The obvious figure who could keep a party together composed of MAGA folk and other sorts of conservatives who for one reason or another dumped Trump, it would be Mike Pence. He’s been loyal to POTUS to the point of embarrassing sycophancy. Yet before he joined Trump’s ticket, he was a rigidly conventional conservative with many friends among his fellow House Republicans. And he’s beloved (at least at the leadership level) among Trump’s and the GOP’s single most important constituency: white conservative Evangelicals. As McKay Coppins notes, he could represent a soothing alternative if the stormy barbarian in the White House just vanished:
One senior Republican Senate staffer, who requested anonymity to describe the situation candidly, told me, “If it was just a matter of magically snapping their fingers … pretty much every Republican senator would switch out Pence for Trump. That’s been true since day one.”
Well, that’s not happening. But if he ascends to the presidency because Trump goes down or leaves, it’s hard to see a really powerful movement among Republicans to dump incumbent President Pence with a 2020 election right there in front of them.
The more immediate question, though, is whether Pence will himself be so deeply implicated in the misconduct leading to the removal of Trump that he’ll go right down with the ship. David Frum has some relevant thoughts on how ensnared the veep might be by the Ukraine scandal:
From the beginning, [Trump] has appeared determined to implicate as many members of his administration as possible in his scandal — Vice President Mike Pence heading the list …
Indeed, Pence seems to have been involved up to the eyeballs in the Ukraine plot. His team’s messaging — Yes, he pressed the Ukrainians to investigate corruption, but he never appreciated that Trump’s true purpose was to pursue the Bidens — fails the laugh test. Pence’s taint presents a political problem for him, but raises a much graver question for the country. If the Senate ever could muster the integrity to remove Trump from office, there would be no Ford to put in his place, only a vice president who participated in Trump’s dirty schemes, from staying at a remote resort to direct government funds to Trump’s failing Irish golf course to extorting an invaded country to fabricate political dirt to help Trump’s reelection.
There may be a limit to Pence’s entanglement, though. Let’s just say it’s November and the House Judiciary Committee is drafting articles of impeachment against Trump, and has reason to impeach Pence as well. Will they consider it, knowing that taking Pence down too would make their own chieftain, Nancy Pelosi, president? That’s certainly the one thing the House could do that is most guaranteed to assure Senate acquittal of both men. It won’t happen: Democrats will likely prefer to get rid of Trump and then deal with a damaged Pence in November of 2020.
If Pence is too unpopular or tainted to replace Trump as their leader, where could Republicans turn?
Let’s say Trump is removed from office or resigns under pressure, and Pence is severely damaged goods. What would Republicans do then, looking down the gun barrel of the 2020 elections? It’s unlikely they would throw the party nomination open to a free competition of candidates like they had in 2016; for all we know, the primaries could be half-over by the time Trump was sent packing. That means Republicans would need to unite quickly and firmly behind a well-known and reasonably popular replacement, pronto. Below is a look at their not-great options.
How about their 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney?
You can almost hear the sonorous voices of centrist elites urging the GOP to turn in its distress to the man it last nominated for president before it went mad and fell to Trump — Mitt Romney. And there’s a certain superficial logic to the argument: He’s got 100 percent name ID; he proved in 2012 that he could placate his party’s many factions, including suspicious conservatives; and he came pretty close to knocking off an incumbent president.
But any scenario where Trump is driven from office by Republicans as well as Democrats has Romney, already a regular and sometimes vociferous Trump critic, being loud and proud and in the lead. That would make him a most unlikely figure to heal a party wounded and probably still divided over the fall of the 45th president.
Besides, outside Utah and LDS circles, and perhaps some Wall Street precincts, Romney has never been and will never be a beloved party titan. He was tolerated by many in 2012 because his rivals turned out to be feckless. But he’s become a symbol of Establishment Republican failure, the most important contributor to Trump’s ascent in the first place. Replacing Trump with the Mittster would be the deepest insult imaginable to mourning MAGA folk who view him as the epitome of the Swamp, both as a politician and as a champion of financial elites. It really wouldn’t make much sense.
How about a face for the future, like Nikki Haley or Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley?
If a figure from the GOP’s past won’t work, then how about one who is flagged for the party’s future? Many idle speculators have dreamed of Nikki Haley as someone who could begin to turn around the GOP’s unsavory reputation among women and minorities (she’s Indian-American), and she’s actually got the bare minimum of a résumé needed to run for president (even before Trump supposedly abolished such qualifications.) Tom Cotton appeals to many traditional conservatives thanks to his military service and his harsh moralism and militarism. He’s also been willing to accommodate Trumpism on issues like immigration and trade, and he conveys a cold hatefulness that Pence lacks, which could appeal to those who want to own the libs. And then there’s the freshest fresh face, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who may represent the distant future of Trumpism, someone so committed to bring back American Greatness that he won’t let quaint Republican attachments like free-market economics get in the way of a culturally reactionary agenda.
The trouble with all these GOP prospects is that they’ve never run, much less won, a national political campaign; they wouldn’t have time for even a moment’s “grooming”; and none, in part because they are all available, would be some sort of lead-pipe cinch as a party leader. It’s just too soon for any of them, and even if any of them were ready, there’s no national party cabal with the power to impose such novices onto the top spot of the 2020 ticket.
How about a 2016 retread?
There is, aside from Romney, a group of pols who have run for president before, but have by and large reconciled themselves to their conquerer, and could in theory unite rabid MAGA folk with the Senate Republicans who have (in this scenario) tossed Trump over the side. That group would include 2016 candidates like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham.
The first problem, of course, is that these men are all senators, who in a post-Trump scenario, would have voted for or against defenestrating him, and probably engaging in much hot rhetoric along the way (that’s assuming Trump doesn’t make it easy by announcing on television that he worships at an altar of the Lord Satan every morning before watching Fox & Friends, or literally shoots someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue). You don’t look among jurors to replace a convicted criminal. The bigger issue would be which of them would get pride of place in a scenario, again, in which Republican primary voters likely would not have the opportunity to sort them out. Do they get together for a game of rock-paper-scissors? It’s hard to see this working out in the constrained circumstances it might involve.
How about a revered senior figure? Could GOP Nation turn its lonely eyes to Paul Ryan?
By process of elimination, if Trump goes down and Pence is cast aside, Republicans would need to quickly find a unity figure not involved in 2016 or more recent, divisive intra-party squabbles. That narrows it down to possibly one person: Paul Ryan. He’s obviously very well-known, with plenty of friends on Capitol Hill and on Wall Street. He’s been on a national ticket before, with the Mittster, whose defeat no one blamed on him. He’s in the neighborhood, having recently moved back to Washington, probably in anticipation of getting the Mother of All Lobbying Gigs — which fortunately he has not yet secured. He’s from the state many experts believe will decide the 2020 election, Wisconsin. And he knows how to graciously accept a call to service while appearing to resist it, having become Speaker of the House precisely through this role as a reluctant party savior.
No, he’s not perfect for the gig of post-Trump presidential nominee; his own misgivings about the 45th president have been pretty clear, and he’d have to swallow hard to champion a lot of Trumpian foreign and economic policies. But he’s been out of the line of fire just long enough that he’s not a red flag to any party faction. Yes, nasty things he said about Trump made it into print in Tim Alberta’s book, American Carnage, this summer, leading to an even nastier presidential tweetstorm. But who in the GOP hasn’t been treated to one of those? I mean, if Trump is run out of office, they can’t make his daughter their next party leader, can they?
This close to the election, Republicans better hope Trump doesn’t force himself and Pence out of office.
Perhaps other writers will spin fantasies of open Trump opponents like William Weld somehow picking up the pieces and roaring through the 2020 primaries if the president goes down very quickly. But that ignores the fact that even if Republicans abandon Trump, the GOP will in many respects remain his party for the foreseeable future. Most likely, they will submerge their private misgivings and go to war with his banner held high, bellowing MAGA rage and trying not to think about inviting another four years of daily madness. And if they can’t do that, they’ll try to salvage his veep. Republicans chose a long dark road when they accepted Donald Trump as their leader and then adjusted to his barbaric ways in exchange for the tax cuts and judicial appointments and high military spending he offered. They won’t be able to climb back toward the light very easily.