Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Trump Tower, August 15, 2017.
By Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
Donald Trump already had few friends in the Senate when he further alienated himself from his party by defending a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that drew scores of Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis to the normally idyllic college town. There were “very fine people,” on both sides, the president argued in a stunning press conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday, referring to a torch-bearing mob that surrounded a Confederate statue. While he said he mourned the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed when a suspected white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of protesters, he argued that there was “blame on both sides” and that the leftist protesters “came charging in without a permit, and they were very violent.”
Republicans were appalled. “The #WhiteSupremacy groups will see being assigned only 50% of blame as a win. We can not allow this old evil to be resurrected,” Senator Marco Rubio wrote on Twitter. Paul Ryan offered a similar condemnation, though he did not call out the president specifically. “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity,” the Speaker of the House tweeted. Mitt Romney, too, denounced the false equivalency. “No, not the same. One side is racist, bigoted, Nazi. The other opposes racism and bigotry. Morally different universes,” the former Republican presidential nominee said.
Just as swiftly, some Democrats began raising the prospect of Trump’s removal from office. “As we once again hear Donald J. Trump defend those responsible for the deadly riot in Charlottesville and receive praise by hate groups like the K.K.K .and neo-Nazis, the time has come for Republicans and Democrats to put aside our political differences and philosophical debates for a higher cause,” Representative Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Wisconsin, said in a statement. “POTUS is showing signs of erratic behavior and mental instability that place the country in grave danger,” Democratic representative Jackie Speier wrote on Twitter. “Time to invoke the 25th Amendment.”
A palace coup seems unlikely, given that invoking the 25th Amendment would require a vote of no confidence from Trump’s Cabinet members—a number of whom stood awkwardly by, wincing but not speaking out, as the president defended the “people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.” But Trump’s comments may have increased his chance of impeachment, if special counsel Robert Mueller eventually brings indictments that implicate the president in Russia’s election hacking campaign or any manner of unrelated wrongdoing that the F.B.I. uncovers in the course of its increasingly wide-ranging investigation.
Trump, of course, may be able to pardon his associates, and even himself, although it would be untested legal territory—not to mention that it is unclear whether a sitting president can even be indicted. At which point, the only path to Trump’s ouster would be impeachment proceedings in Congress. As Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel to President Clinton, told me in a recent interview: “What Mueller does is to prosecute people. You can’t prosecute a president—at least most people don’t think you can. But you can certainly recommend impeachment,” as was the case with Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.
For the next year and a half, at least, Republicans control both the Senate and the House, where impeachment proceedings begin, meaning that any effort to remove Trump from the White House would require substantial members of his own party to turn on him. This, too, seems unlikely. In June, a top Republican strategist explained to me that despite Trump’s historically low approval rating, as long as he remains popular with the Republican base, we are unlikely to see G.O.P. lawmakers break with him in a substantive way. “For every vote you lose on a Republican right now, you don’t gain it with an independent,” the strategist told me. “If that changes and he’s not as popular among Republicans, and you do get some benefit—you get more benefit out of going to the middle than you do being with the president, then that’s when you would see the wheels start to come off.”
At the time of my interview with the G.O.P. strategist, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans was 83 percent. It is now 79 percent. And it would not be unreasonable to presume that it could fall further in the wake of Trump’s defense of white nationalism. A Gallup poll spanning Friday through Sunday and the tragic events over the weekend found Trump’s approval rating hit a new low of 34 percent overall.
The latest poll, of course, does not include Trump’s Tuesday remarks, which may yet prove a tipping point for the president’s relationship with the Republican Party. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro recently pointed out, “There is a large portion of Trump’s white voter base that’s really offended by the idea they are associated with white nationalists or overt racists—even if, at the same time, appeals to white resentment are a part of what draws them to Trump.”
These are the sort of people who make a lot of statements that start “I’m not racist, but . . . “
They really didn’t like it when Hillary Clinton called them deplorable, because when they insist they’re not racist, they mean it. They know they’re not racist because their idea of a racist is a torch-wielding white-power protester, which they’re not.
So when a bunch of white power protesters made a big spectacle of themselves, and then one of them killed a woman and injured more than a dozen other people, and then Trump gave an equivocal statement that seemed to validate their support of him anyway, this was embarrassing for Trump’s other white backers.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s Charlottesville tirade—which aides say reflected his true feelings about the matter—it is tempting to think that the impeachment calculus has changed. And the momentum has certainly shifted, if only slightly, in that direction. With every unsettling outburst, the president weakens his political firewall. But there are caveats, as is always the case with Trump. There were several other low points during the campaign—Trump’s racist attacks against a Hispanic judge, the leak of the infamous Access Hollywood tape—when even Republican commentators were convinced that the presidential hopeful had destroyed any chance at the White House. At the time, a deluge of Republican lawmakers denounced Trump. They went on to vote for him and support his agenda anyway.