Skip to main content
opinion

Clifford Orwin is professor of political science, fellow of St. Michael’s College and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

In late September, I watched as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the Democrats would launch impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump – and was certain this would be a mistake. That effort was doomed to fail in the Senate, I believed, and it would also provoke the demon of populism, thus enhancing Mr. Trump’s chances of re-election next year.

What a difference a month makes.

Cracks have appeared in the Republican dike; more holes will follow. Mr. Trump has replied by flailing helplessly, boasting absurdly and lashing out viciously, even labelling Republican critics as “human scum.” His latest gambit: provoking a riot by his congressional supporters. This is how a presidency ends.

If any Republican still needed proof that this emperor has no clothes, his decision to abandon the Kurds supplied it. We still don’t know why he did it – whether it was from gutlessness, witlessness, or just fecklessness – but when tinhorn dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan bluffed, Mr. Trump folded. The policy of bolstering its Obama-era alliance with the Kurds had been one of the few successes of his presidency; at a low cost in both lives and money, the Kurdish forces helped hold the Islamic State in check, among other important goals. Now, U.S. foreign policy in the region looks to be in shambles, and every one of its Middle Eastern enemies is crowing.

These of course include Mr. Erdogan himself, the Turkish President who played the Great Negotiator for a chump. As for Mr. Trump’s defence of his conduct – blaming the Kurds for not being present at D-Day, announcing that they were “no angels,” insisting that Mr. Erdogan had promised to be nice in repressing them, threatening him with devastating sanctions if he wasn’t, and finally capitulating utterly, lifting all sanctions on him even amidst reports of war crimes – it has been a performance worthy of the betrayal itself. No previous episode has so displayed Mr. Trump’s stunning incompetence as President.

You may doubt whether any foreign-policy decision, however harmful and disgraceful, can be cast as an impeachable offense. No such reservation applies, however, to the flim-flam around a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about investigating a political opponent’s son. It was a clearly illegal attempt to strong-arm a fragile foreign power into helping Mr. Trump win the next election; a career diplomat of impeccable reputation has been among several to attest to it.

This was the smoking gun, and Republicans must acknowledge it as such. With half of all Americans already favouring impeachment, including a small but growing numbers of Republicans, GOP senators should get ahead of the curve. The time to divorce themselves from Mr. Trump is now.

It’s not as if most congressional Republicans like or admire Mr. Trump. They have already gotten most of what they wanted from him: the tax reform so friendly to their donors, a drastic reduction of economic and environmental regulation and control of the federal judiciary including the Supreme Court. With the Democrats now running Congress, Mr. Trump is a goose from which no more golden eggs can be expected – only a loss in 2020 that will drag many other Republicans down with him.

A successful revolt will require both strength of character and strength in numbers. Its leaders will have to emerge, not from the few moderates remaining in the Senate, but from stalwart Republicans from deep-red states. The problem, as so often in politics, is how to get from here to there. Little can be expected from GOP members of Congress, some of whom face primaries this year and all of whom must themselves face their voters in 2020. Roughly a third of senators will also find themselves in that situation. But the rest will at least enjoy the breathing room required to oppose Mr. Trump. Were just 20 to defect, Mr. Trump would be cooked, and like Richard Nixon, it is likely that he would resign rather than face conviction.

Will it happen? Probably not. But it’s no longer impossible. It happened to Mr. Nixon, who was far more of a Republican than Mr. Trump and commanded much deeper loyalty. And there is an impeachment backup plan: a motion of censure of the President from one or both houses of the Congress.

But Republicans need to face up to the facts: all of their alternatives are bad. Yes, Mike Pence, raised to office by his boss’s resignation, would make a very weak president. But Mr. Trump himself, right now, is already a very weak one. Mr. Pence would likely lose in 2020, but so would Mr. Trump. By assembling a critical mass of decent upstanding lawmakers, Republicans can salvage what they can of the party’s honour, and therefore, perhaps its future.

So will they kowtow to Mr. Trump? Or will they step up to the plate and proudly take on the mantle of human scum?

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Interact with The Globe