Impeachment push tests GOP’s political skills as 2020 looms

Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor
Associated Press

Washington – Congressional Republicans could be nearing crucial tests of their loyalty toward President Donald Trump and of how well they’ve mastered the art of walking a political tightrope during his turbulent presidency.

Should damning evidence accumulate that Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden, a potential 2020 presidential rival, some Republicans facing reelection next year may be forced into a painful political box.

Turn on Trump and risk jeopardizing his presidency and infuriating his staunchly loyal supporters. With the most recent polls showing Trump is supported by 8 in 10 Republican voters or more, any GOP lawmaker who abandons him could well inspire a primary challenge that might be tough to survive.

The Republican Party, the Trump campaign and other GOP organizations say they are suspending their spending on Twitter to protest the platform's treatment of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“If you support impeachment and they don’t, you’re signing your own death warrant,” said Republican consultant Glen Bolger, referring to GOP lawmakers and hardcore Trump supporters.

If the evidence is incriminating enough, standing by Trump could jeopardize support from moderate voters come the November 2020 general election. While most congressional Republicans represent safely GOP areas, those from swing districts and states can ill afford to anger such constituents.

“Very few things animate the base of both political parties like an impeachment discussion,” said Josh Holmes, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

An impeachment effort could help Republican candidates from GOP-leaning states, but Republicans from predominantly Democratic states must “figure out how to navigate those waters,” he said.

Republicans said there remained many unanswered questions about Trump’s actions before impeachment becomes a real threat to his presidency.

They also noted that Congress is on the verge of a two-week recess during which lawmakers will hear their constituents’ views first-hand. It will also give pollsters a chance to gauge public sentiment and update surveys that until now have shown that people are mostly against impeaching Trump.

Even so, at least one Democrat was all but rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the difficult spot Republicans face.

“They’re terrified,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said of his GOP colleagues. “They’re trying to find a place to land where they can maintain their credibility and their loyalty (to Trump), but at some point you have to choose.”

The White House released a rough transcript Wednesday of Trump’s July conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In it, Trump urged his counterpart to “look into” corrupt actions by Biden in Ukraine – of which there is no evidence.

Most Republicans speaking to reporters showed no signs of wavering and said the transcript’s release didn’t trouble them. They said it buttressed a narrative they’ve used throughout Trump’s presidency as he battled questions about Russia’s cooperation with his 2016 campaign – that Democrats are blindly out to get rid of him.

“It confirms what I suspected. Democrats have an impeachment obsession,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

“I haven’t run into anyone yet with a cold foot,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., of his Republican colleagues.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has occasionally clashed with Trump, has been most openly critical of him. He called the transcript “deeply troubling.”

Yet in a time when GOP lawmakers have learned to tread lightly when it comes to confronting Trump – many who have done so are no longer in Congress – some facing competitive reelections next year chose their words carefully.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the transcript “raises a number of questions.” She also cited the Senate’s potential role in ultimately judging whether Trump, if impeached, should be expelled from office, saying she’ll be “a juror” and doesn’t want to be “prejudging” him.