Trump State of the Union 2018
Credit: White House/Flickr

NBC News is reporting that a tiny low-wattage light bulb has flickered on inside President Trump’s brain.

Despite President Donald Trump’s public declaration that he isn’t concerned about impeachment, he has told people close to him in recent days that he is alarmed by the prospect, according to multiple sources.

Trump’s fear about the possibility has escalated as the consequences of federal investigations involving his associates and Democratic control of the House sink in, the sources said, and his allies believe maintaining the support of establishment Republicans he bucked to win election is now critical to saving his presidency.

The next obvious step would be to devise some kind of strategy for keeping establishment Republicans happy. In particular, he’s going to need to satisfy members of his caucus in the Senate, because they will ultimately decide whether he survives the next year.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida rattled the White House with similarly cautious remarks Sunday when asked about Trump’s possible involvement in the violation of campaign finance laws: “If someone has violated the law, the application of the law should be applied to them like it would to any other citizen in this country, and obviously if you’re in a position of great authority like the presidency that would be the case.”

Rubio said his decision on how Congress should respond to federal investigators’ final findings on the payments “will not be a political decision, it’ll be the fact that we are a nation of laws and no one in this country no matter who you are is above it.”

Senator Rubio sounds pretty unforgiving about some of the least serious of the allegations against the president. If he’s saying the president should be held accountable for covering up his extramarital affairs, what will he say about suborning perjury, obstructing justice, money laundering, or coordination with WikiLeaks and Russian military intelligence?

Remember, also, that Rubio publicly claimed in March 2017 that his own campaign had been targeted by Russian hackers in 2016. There are also personal and professional reasons why Rubio is unlikely to stick with the president for very long. There are lingering bad feelings from the rough-and-tumble Republican primaries, and then there’s the fact that no candidate for statewide office in Florida can afford to get on the wrong side of a major political dispute. Elections there are too close to call, even in the best of scenarios.

More than that, though, establishment Republicans have to believe that the president is capable of doing the job with at least a minimal degree of competence, and that he won’t lead the party off a cliff. Trump’s performance of late has been especially alarming in that regard. Taking the blame for any government shutdown was political malpractice.

Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, distanced himself Wednesday from President Donald Trump’s remarks welcoming a government shutdown over funding for a border wall.

“I’ve been here during government shutdowns,” Cornyn said. “When the government reopens, the same problem is staring you in the face, because the government shut down in the first instance. So I don’t understand the strategy. Perhaps the president has a strategy. I heard him talk about getting the military to build some of those physical barriers. That just remains to be seen. But I can tell you that right now I don’t see the benefits of a shutdown strategy.”

Siding with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over his own intelligence agencies is not going over very well.

As the US Senate moved to vote on Thursday on a resolution condemning Saudi Arabia for its conduct of the war in Yemen and the assassination of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a bipartisan group of senators vowed to impose concrete sanctions on the kingdom in legislation next year.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said on Wednesday that the group plans to advance legislation imposing financial penalties and prohibiting arms sales when the new Congress begins in January.

In some of their strongest comments to date, senators signalled they would like to see Saudi Arabia remove Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from power.

“To our friends in Saudi Arabia, you are never going to have a relationship with the United States Senate unless things change. And it’s up to you to figure out what that change needs to be,” Graham, a congressional ally of President Donald Trump, told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference.

“From my point of view, the current construct is not working. There is a relationship between countries and individuals. The individual, the crown prince, is so toxic, so tainted, so flawed that I can’t ever see myself doing business in the future with Saudi Arabia unless there is a change there,” Graham said.

It hasn’t inspired any confidence on the Hill that the president fired the supposed “only adult in the room,” chief of staff John Kelly, and now cannot find a replacement. And it has already been reported that “the president’s top lieutenants on Capitol Hill” are anxious that he has not assembled an adequate legal team or strategy to fight back against the incoming subpoena-armed House Democrats and the inevitable carpet bombing from Robert Mueller.

To kind of summarize here, the president is giving the Republican Party ownership of a government shutdown they do not want on an issue they do not support. His White House operation is in shambles and the one person people trusted to keep it on track has been fired – and there is no comparable replacement in sight. Presently, the Senate is voting to essentially rebuke the president for his position on Saudi Arabia, and that disconnect will grow more serious next year. And, even if congressional Republicans wanted to fight to the death for Trump’s presidency, they’re not getting any information or guidance on how to perform that task because the legal and political teams in the White House are understaffed, uninformed, and incompetent.

Yet, Trump now believes that he needs to hold on to the support of “establishment” Republicans to survive.

That would be a difficult thing to achieve in the best of circumstances considering that Trump came to power by trashing them. They’ve basically gotten what they wanted from him already – a big tax cut, two Supreme Court justices, and a bunch of relaxed or gutted regulation. They’ve just seen two score of their colleagues cut down in the midterm elections, largely as a result of backlash against the president. There is no appetite for going into the 2020 presidential campaign with Trump as the Republican establishment’s standard-bearer.

Only two things can keep them in Trump’s corner. One is fear of a primary challenge, and the other is a massive change of behavior by the president. But no one will mourn Trump when he’s gone. Nixon’s posterity will look rosy by comparison, even in conservative circles. The fear that Trump’s base will spend their post-Trump time purging the party of those who held him accountable is a laughable idea. Trump’s ability to inspire fear is waning and will soon be completely gone. That leaves Trump with only one option, and it’s one he’d have to take anyway to adjust to a new political paradigm in which he must cut deals with the Democrats. Trump needs to start governing from the middle and stop trashing establishmentarian institutions like the FBI, Department of Justice, and the judiciary.

But this won’t happen because he’s incapable of making this transformation. Even if he attempted it, it would be too late for him politically. He now needs his loyal base just to keep the floor from falling out beneath him, so alienating them would cause his polls to crater. But to survive an impeachment battle with the establishment, he does need to start appeasing the establishment.

He’s telling people close to him that he understands this, but he can’t even get an establishment figure to serve as his chief of staff. The truth is, he burned his bridges and, at this point, the establishment is just waiting for Mueller, so they can clean out this mess.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at