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Why Congress isn’t reining in Trump

Republicans are more afraid of primary challenges than general election voters right now.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in silent contemplation. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty

As the past few weeks have reminded us, the American government’s vaunted system of checks and balances is not self-executing. Congress is an organization that has a great deal of power to thwart the executive branch. Thus far, though, the Republican leadership has been more or less giving the new president what he wants: approving his Cabinet members, praising his Supreme Court nominee, and otherwise minimizing his various transgressions.

And there’s been no shortage of transgressions. On top of some highly unusual behavior, comments that have undermined America’s relationships with its allies around the globe, and some explicitly anti-democratic sentiments, President Trump is engaging in a number of activities that could certainly be considered impeachable offenses. He appears to be in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. He has bragged openly of sexual assault. He was elected with the apparent assistance of Russia after openly calling upon Russia to hack Democrats’ computers and employing campaign aides with ties to that regime. He has agreed to pay $25 million to settle a lawsuit over his university. There are far more such activities.

Do any of these actions automatically trigger impeachment? No. Nothing does. The Constitution just lists “high crimes and misdemeanors” as cause for impeachment. Ultimately, what constitutes an impeachable offense is up to a majority of the US House. It’s a political consideration. But it’s worth remembering that the two other presidents who were impeached committed offenses that seem far less serious compared with Trump’s train of abuses thus far. (Bill Clinton was impeached for committing perjury when he lied under oath about having an affair. Andrew Johnson was impeached for firing a Cabinet official in defiance of a law preventing him from doing so.)

On top of that, Trump is unpopular for a new president and appears to be growing less popular with each passing week. His policy achievements thus far have been sharply polarizing, needlessly disruptive, and poorly vetted. And when they produce the sort of negative media coverage one would expect in such situations, he only prolongs the bad press with attacks on reporters, judges, and sometimes even truth itself. He appears either unwilling or unable to correct such behavior. If his approval ratings are in the 40s and heading southward despite this being his first month in office during a time of relative peace, prosperity, and low crime rates, this does not bode well for him for the next few years.

So where is Congress now? What are they waiting for? The simple answer — that Congress is run by Republicans, and they won’t impeach a fellow Republican — has some truth to it but isn’t complete. The key thing to remember is that members of Congress want to keep their jobs and have multiple constituencies to keep happy.

Republican members of Congress have good reason to believe that Trump will be unpopular in 2018 and will hurt their own chances for reelection at the midterms. But they also know that Trump remains popular with his base, a group of voters that proved highly active in last year’s primaries and caucuses and almost fanatical in their devotion to Trump’s message. Those voters will show up in next year’s primaries and caucuses as well, and they won’t be feeling very good about Republican members of Congress who turned on Trump.

Legislative polarization is at such a point today that members of Congress are generally more afraid of primary challenges than general election contests. The overwhelming majority of members get reelected in general elections, but primary challenges can be tough and difficult to stop once they get going. A few high-profile takedowns (like Eric Cantor’s) serve as an important reminder to other members. We don’t always see these primary threats actually manifest, since members will often position themselves in an extreme enough way to keep a rival from catching fire. But members know that the activists who show up for primaries have more passion, longer memories, and deeper pockets than voters who show up in general elections.

At some point, associating with Trump may prove so costly in a general election that some Republican members of Congress will be willing to risk blowback in the primary. But we aren’t there yet. Richard Nixon’s approval ratings were in the 20s, after two years of incessant investigation, before Republican members of Congress were willing to publicly consider impeachment, and that was at a time when congressional polarization was far lower than it is today.

Of course, Congress has a number of tools and negotiating tactics that fall well short of impeachment that it could utilize to exert some control over Trump. We may well see such activity over the next few months. And Congress might just decide to turn on him altogether. But we shouldn’t expect to see this anytime soon.

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