In case you missed it, yesterday in U.S. politics was the equivalent of the Superbowl, World Cup final, and World Series game seven all rolled into one. All eyes and ears were glued on the U.S. Capitol, where the two biggest political titans in America were engaging in battle. The first salvo was launched by the determined bureaucrat, former FBI Director James Comey, and will soon be returned by bombastic politician, President Donald Trump. Comey, recently fired by Trump, accused the President of lying about why he was terminated from his job.
James Comey’s testimony has been the most anxiously anticipated event in ages, even rivaling the Election Day battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. FBI director is a powerful and highly respected position, and to accuse an incumbent president of lying is a serious charge. Democrats went into Comey’s testimony praying for a smoking gun that would lead to a call for Trump’s impeachment. Republicans could do little but pray that things wouldn’t be too brutal for the controversial and not-well-spoken president.
In the end, Republicans got their wish: Trump took a few lumps, but nothing that overwhelms the mockery and criticism he has weathered thus far. Comey’s opening statement reveals Trump to be a schemer who tried to intimidate the head of the FBI… but nothing that rises to proof of obstruction of justice. With innuendo and closed-door meetings, the former business tycoon tried to cajole the FBI director, using ambiguous language, into dropping the investigations into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and into possible ties between Russia and members of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Unfortunately for Democrats, ambiguous language ensures that Trump will avoid any formal charges. Any halfway decent lawyer could shred a prosecutor’s assertion that Trump’s use of “ease up” amounted to an order to terminate an investigation. Sure, everyone knows what Trump meant, but the President was either shrewd enough or lucky enough to not hang himself with his own words.
So, the big question now is what effect Comey’s testimony will have on Donald Trump’s public support. Frankly, the president’s reputation cannot sink much lower among liberals. Trump was already reviled for just about every speech and tweet he made since embarking on his presidential campaign. Among moderates and independents, Trump might lose some 2020 votes, but perhaps not many- it’s still a long way off. By being so utterly controversial during his candidacy, Trump ensured that he was not getting any votes by being considered nice, politically correct, or tactful.
Trump supporters knew that he was combative, aggressive, and would put the squeeze on anyone he thought he needed to. Like the real estate mogul he once was, Trump threw his weight around once he entered the Oval Office. Those who cast their ballots for Trump will likely applaud that the new president tried to “alpha male” James Comey. When Trump says “I expect loyalty,” his supporters nod their heads in agreement.
Most Trump voters appreciate the commander-in-chief’s plainspoken demands, his insistence on respect for authority, and his insistence on cutting through red tape. In their eyes, Trump’s attempts to get the FBI to drop its investigations into Michael Flynn and the Russia scandal were reasonable. With no smoking gun revealing direct links between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s hackers, many conservatives view the Russia scandal as a liberal conspiracy egged on by the mainstream media.
And, with the media having hyped Comey’s testimony endlessly, practically promising that the former FBI director’s words would sink Trump’s presidency, the lack of a smoking gun makes Trump supporters feel justified in standing by their man. In this regard, simply surviving Comey’s testimony can be viewed as a victory for the president. His supporters are now invigorated and emboldened, interpreting the lack of a smoking gun as a failure of the liberal media and Washington establishment to topple a tough-talking conservative icon.
But, even as Trump’s voters are smiling smugly, more cracks in Trump’s congressional support appear. While individual voters and political commentators can celebrate the lack of a smoking gun, Republicans in Congress have their future political careers to worry about. Enough dirt was revealed in the Comey testimony to drive even more GOP legislators to keep Trump at arm’s length. Trump may not have been implicated in a crime, but he sure looked like a schmuck. Republicans in non-safe districts, and those who might seek higher office cannot afford to be caught in the net of “guilt by association.”
As a result, look to Trump to distance himself from a stubborn and evasive Congress and focus his attention on more campaign-style rallies with voters. He may pull back on his legislative proposals and begin crafting a plan for his 2020 re-election bid. Knowing that Congress will not risk supporting his key proposals, he may try to tread new ground and propose ideas directly to the voters. This populism could serve him well by further invigorating his base.
The President is definitely not down and out!