The political earthquake no one is preparing for…
Everyone is assuming that Trump will be running for his second term as the Republican nominee for president in 2020. And it makes sense to do so. Trump declared his candidacy for 2020 within hours of finishing his inauguration speech in 2016. Since then he has held dozens of campaign rallies as part of a broader attempt to make his administration a continuation of his 2016 campaign. The faith of his core supporters remains unshaken, and they in turn continue to dominate the platform and message of the Republican Party. The result is that there is no real talk of Republican challengers for the nomination, and certainly no plan in place if one arose or was needed.
The Democrats are currently putting together what may be the largest field of candidates for president in 150 years. They are an extremely diverse group with unprecedented female representation, racial and religious diversity, and together they represent perspectives from across America. Many of the candidates are the direct result of “The Blue Tsunami” that swept through the House of Representatives during the 2018 midterm elections. They are separating themselves by promoting a wide variety of policies and proposals including ‘The Green New Deal’, Medicare for all, and immigration reform. What they all have in common is the need to answer one question, “Can you beat Trump in 2020?”
But what if Trump doesn’t run in 2020?
There is no single scenario for Trump not running which is certain or even likely to happen. But when you consider that there are multiple scenarios involving a wide variety of triggers and issues the possibility becomes much greater. The president is currently involved or linked with almost 20 different investigations involving multiple federal and state agencies. They involve potential civil and criminal violations, and many will persist beyond his time of office (i.e. his ability to use both executive privilege and the pardon). There is the real potential for the investigations to cross his most important ‘redline’ and begin involving his family. And there are signs that traditional Republican support for Trump is waning as his policy decisions are increasingly questioned by key GOP members in Congress. Along with the specter of the Mueller Report and impeachment proceedings in the House, there is a much larger potential for Trump not running in 2020 than is currently being considered.
Scenario #1 — Forced Removal from Office
There are several paths by which the president could be forcibly removed from office before the 2020 election. None of them are certain, and according to most analysis the majority are unlikely pending a bombshell revelation showing significant criminal activity by the president. All of them begin with the Mueller Report and how it answers questions regarding direct connections between the president and criminal activity. And because each of them, regardless of process or procedure, ends with the removal of Trump before the 2020 election they must be considered.
Direct criminal indictment of the president is the most problematic of the scenarios. There is enough significant legal debate regarding the constitutionality of indicting a sitting president that most believe the case would end up in the Supreme Court. It is impossible to predict how the case would evolve without information from the Mueller Report, which itself could take months to be even partially revealed. What is guaranteed is that between the political and legal path the case would take and it’s certainty to set precedent, it would be the biggest Supreme Court case since Roe v. Wade for American political culture. And when you consider the current political climate in America combined with the reality that Trump himself appointed two of the Supreme Court judges, it is currently unlikely that an indictment would ever be issued, let alone prosecuted.
Impeachment is a more likely scenario than removal through indictment, although there are still significant hurdles to overcome on this path. The primary reason is that constitutionally speaking, impeachment must precede indictment. Much of the potential for indictment rests on how constitutional provisions are read by courts leading up to and including the Supreme Court. The potential for impeachment however rests predominantly on political perceptions and interpretations of the information/evidence presented over the next few months. For this reason, the fight over just how much of the Mueller Report is released is certain to become a pivotal struggle for the Trump administration and the country. Combined with continued Republican control of the Senate there is no simple or probable path to removal of the president through impeachment or indictment before November 2020… but there are paths.
Scenario #2 — Legal Pressure
There are a few legal scenarios for Trump not running in 2020 that exist short of direct indictment or impeachment. The majority revolve around how much the Mueller Report and other ongoing investigations may implicate family members in prosecutable crimes. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that both Donald Trump Jr. and his son-in-law Jared Kushner could be directly involved in several of the ongoing cases linked with Mueller’s investigation. When additional investigations involving the Trump Organization, questionable business dealings, and the emoluments clause are completed even his daughter Ivanka may be exposed to legal jeopardy.
Of all the paths to Trump deciding not to run in 2020, doing so to protect family members from prosecution is a real possibility. He has stated that legal investigation and prosecution of his family members as a “redline” in his self-professed hands-off approach to the Mueller investigation. On a more personal level he has had no shortage of praise for his children and son-in-law, placing all of them at the highest levels within his administration as a show of his trust in their loyalty to him. Should any of them be threatened with actual jail time as a result of their relationships with the potential misdeeds of his campaign or administration ‘everything would be on the table’.
But legal pressure could come from other directions as well. According to some reports the president spent somewhere around $2 million in legal fees in 2018, although that figure seems conservative given the large increase in investigations of him and his businesses that took place later in the year. Between 20 and 25% of the money he’s raised through campaign donations is going to the legal defense of his campaign, the Trump Corporation, and himself as entities in separate investigations. Although unlikely, it is possible that as new investigations begin and old ones conclude that the financial and even personal toll becomes too much. Trump himself has indicated one of the primary motivations in his life besides family is financial success. One must wonder what he’d be willing to consider if it started to become apparent that defending himself while trying to win another election was leading him to financial ruin.
Scenario #3 — Political Pressure
A third group of potential paths to Trump not running in 2020 revolve around pressure within the GOP itself for him to withdraw. There is no doubt that Trump’s rhetorical claim that “he could shoot somebody and not lose voters” has been fully borne out through his unwavering poll numbers over the last two years. The one thing that the Democratic victory in the midterms demonstrated however was that relying solely on Trump’s core as part of the broader GOP platform will not produce success. Republicans are currently caught in the dilemma of maintaining unwavering support for their president versus realizing they could very easily continue to lose power throughout Washington DC as a result.
For the last two years there have been three groups of Republican politicians when it comes to engaging Donald Trump. A small group symbolized by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake have been vocal critics of Trump since the beginning. A second larger group has been labeled ‘Trump Core Supporters’ and are represented in Congress by individuals like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. The most important group of Republicans however are those that have taken a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. Just as there are supporters who will keep faith in Trump no matter what happens, there are those who will believe in his guilt regardless of how much he may be exonerated or found innocent. But the individuals who will play the biggest role in Trump’s political future are the large number of moderate Republicans who are awaiting the outcome of the Mueller report, and the impeachment proceedings that are all but guaranteed to follow.
History would indicate that even if there are significant new revelations of unethical and immoral behavior by Trump the majority of Republicans will continue to support him at the ballot box. I was one of the individuals that believed the infamous bus video guaranteed he would never be elected. From the hush-money payments to porn stars and mistresses during the campaign, to questionable behavior and comments throughout his administration, if there is a moral threshold beyond which his supporters won’t follow him we haven’t gotten to it yet. But the reason that his supporters, detractors, and everyone in between is waiting with baited-breath for the Mueller Report is the possibility that it could reveal that threshold in a startling manner. When you add to this the potential for discovery of further transgressions and unethical behavior in investigations of his campaign fund, the Trump organization, and individual business dealings of his family, the possibility of a new level of corruption and/or conspiracy could be revealed increases… along with the point at which his own party decides to ask him to go.
If Trump is indicted or facing potentially successful impeachment proceedings in Congress, then the possibility of him not running in 2020 will take the form of a dawning realization. But if it is a decision that he tries to come to on his own terms then it could end up being a bombshell in the middle of the 2020 campaign that no one even knew was ticking. The first possibility will give the media, Democrats, Republicans, and voters at least a little bit of lead-time before considering a 2020 presidential election without Trump. The second possibility would force the entire country to overnight throw out everything they’ve done for the last four years and prepare for what can only be called ‘a normal presidential election’.
The biggest problem for Democratic candidates will be redefining themselves without Trump as the easy foil. A field which could be 25 candidates deep at the beginning of primary season would then be forced to establish themselves from either policy perspectives, or as personal alternatives to other candidates in the field. As long as Trump is running for president, he will provide the entire Democratic field with a rudder that most of them will rely on heavily. If he were to step down at least half of the candidates would find themselves unable to define their candidacy beyond their professed dislike for Trump and/or his policies. In this environment traditional characteristics like experience, moderation, and statesmanship will come to the forefront tilting the Democratic primaries in favor of individuals like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.
For Republicans the problem will be exponentially larger as the moment will find them without any established candidates at all. This is not to say that individuals will not quickly fill the void, but the dominant reaction amongst Republicans will be one of panic mixed with anger, and perhaps even a little bit of betrayal. Republicans in all three previously mentioned groups will have to confront a palpable level of national anger towards them and their enabling of Donald Trump. This is with the assumption that whatever led him to being removed or deciding not to run was so egregious as to leave the legal system or his own personal conscience no option but to take him out of the race.
In either regard Republicans will be left scrambling to put forth candidates with a real chance of winning. A certain amount of chaos in the Democratic Party and diffusion of enthusiasm across their large field of candidates will increase those chances. But it is the traditional Republican establishment that will seek to reclaim control of the party from core Trump supporters. Ironically, the Republicans also will seek to return to characteristics associated with traditional presidential candidates with someone like John Kasich ultimately securing the Republican nomination for president in 2020.
Returning to where we started, it is important to once again stress that none of these scenarios or outcomes can be considered probable or even likely. In every case there are multiple and significant hurdles that could void that path to Trump not running in 2020. A benign Mueller Report, especially one that explicitly exonerates the president, would significantly reduce the grounds upon which impeachment proceedings could proceed. And it would all but end all talk of indictments. If it turns out that Trump Jr., Ivanka, and Kushner all avoid significant criminal liabilities, then that also would greatly reduce the possibility of investigators or politicians pressuring Trump to step down. Finally, if there are no major new revelations or allegations that come out against the president in the next 12 months as a result of the investigations there is no reason to believe that the level of his political support amongst Republicans would decline.
The point of this argument is not to claim with any certainty that Trump will be out of the picture by November 2020. I do however believe that there are a much larger number of “if’s” that could lead to that reality than are currently being considered. It is the number of possibilities combined with the seismic impact it would have on American politics, that makes the question one worth asking.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.