In all the coverage of the Trump administration’s fraught interactions with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it has been easy to miss the potentially more consequential interplay unfolding across town: that between Mueller’s team and Congress.
Last month, Republican Representative Ron DeSantis proposed a measure to limit funding for Mueller’s probe to six months and restrict its scope. More recently, there have been spats between Mueller’s team and the GOP-led congressional investigations of Russia’s election interference.
Congress’s approach to the investigation—both in its relationship with Mueller and the fervor with which it gathers evidence and executes its oversight role—is of decisive importance for Trump’s future. When it comes to righting presidential wrongs, special prosecutors generally play only a supporting role. True power over the investigation and removal of sitting presidents has always run through Congress.
Special or independent prosecutors have been used to investigate three presidents (and their administrations): President Nixon for Watergate, President Reagan for Iran-Contra, and President Clinton for the Whitewater scandal and later the Lewinsky affair. If history is any guide, Trump’s fate will be decided not by Mueller but by Congress.
In all three of those precedents, the appointment of special or independent prosecutors and their subsequent investigations took years to bear results, especially with respect to the president. None of those investigations was particularly disruptive until a credible threat of impeachment materialized. And, most importantly for Trump, none of the investigations on their own significantly eroded intra-party support for the president.
If these precedents are a reliable guide, Trump ought to benefit from the two-way street that runs between congressional backing (needed to stave off impeachment) and popular support within the party (needed to discourage congressmen from abandoning ship). Based on timing alone, the key to his fate will likely be the 2018 midterm elections, not the special counsel. If Democrats take back the House—and regain the power to issue subpoenas and hold public hearings—Trump will be in real trouble.
Start with timing. Republican members of Congress are praying a smoking gun does not emerge to damage their party’s president in the 14 months between now and the midterms. On this count, they may be in luck. “Saturday Night Massacre” aside, the Watergate special investigation took 14 months before it reached a fever pitch with the Supreme Court’s ruling that Nixon was required to turn over the White House tapes. And although Nixon resigned shortly thereafter, in August 1974, the investigation itself ran until 1977.
That case was the speediest of the three. Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh was appointed in December 1986, first indicted senior officials in 1988, and did not publish his final report until 1993. Kenneth Starr’s tenure as independent counsel is notorious for its protracted timeline, running from January 1994 to September 1998. Given the sensitivity of his remit, Mueller will likely be in no rush to produce findings with anything less than certainty. If he follows his predecessors’ timelines, that could take a while.Perhaps the most critical variable for Trump, though, is popular support among Republican voters. Their favor holds the key to keeping anxious Republican lawmakers’ fingers off the impeachment trigger and this embattled administration in business. Here, too, the precedents suggest little for Trump to worry about in the near term. Of the three presidents who have faced similar investigations, only Nixon saw a catastrophic loss of partisan support.
Nixon’s loss of popular support, however, was not due to the appointment of a special prosecutor or the results of his investigation. Nixon saw two notable declines in Republican approval during the Watergate investigation: one in January 1973, when two campaign aides were convicted in connection with the Watergate burglary (unrelated to the special prosecutor’s investigation), and another during the summer of the same year, at the height of nationally televised Senate hearings into the matter (when his support was already beginning to erode).
Even so, his approval among Republicans only dipped below 50 percent twice over the course of the investigation and did not get stuck there until nearly a year later, in May 1974. An independent investigation was not enough to make the most committed partisans abandon their political champion. Similarly, Reagan’s approval rating among Republicans dropped to 74 percent immediately after the initial leak of the Iran-Contra arrangement but stabilized thereafter, despite over 50 percent of Americans reporting that they believed he had lied about his knowledge of arms sales to Iran.
The real lesson from the history of presidential scandals is that it is tough for a special prosecutor alone to bring down an administration.One key advantage congressional hearings can have is their potential to reach a broad public, something that special prosecutors, who endeavor to conduct their investigations in secret, seldom do. The Senate Watergate hearings were a national political event, with between 71 and 85 percent watching them live. In contrast, just over a third of Americans watched the Iran-Contra hearings at the outset. Viewership only reached peak levels during Oliver North’s testimony in the final weeks of hearings, by which time Republican opinion had largely stabilized. The Whitewater hearings were barely a blip. Then again, if congressional hearings that attract large audiences have the power to galvanize public opinion, that can cut both ways. Nearly half of Americans reported watching Clinton’s impeachment hearings in 1998, but his approval rating among Democrats soared into the 90s at the height of those hostile hearings, as partisans concluded that Congress had overreached.
Trump’s approval rating among Republicans still stands at just under 80 percent, even if the degree of “strong approval” of him has declined. That should be enough to avert a mass Republican defection in Congress. The electoral consequences of Watergate and impeachment (made possible by a Democratic Congress) explain why. In the 1974 midterm elections, after Nixon’s impeachment and resignation, Republican turnout fell by nearly 3 million votes while the Democrats’ rose by 1 million. This cost Republicans 49 seats in the House and enough to give the Democrats a 60-seat majority in the Senate. Today’s GOP leaders are desperate not to repeat such a rout.
So the real lesson from the history of presidential scandals is that it is tough for a special prosecutor alone to bring down an administration. That feat is more readily accomplished in the court of public opinion, where an opposition-led Congress can rain hellfire and brimstone upon a troubled presidency (assuming the public can be convinced to tune in). Richard Nixon knew this well. “Put yourself in the position of the other side,” he told his chief of staff, Alexander Haig, in 1973. “They control the Congress, they control the committees.”
If Trump wants to avoid a similar fate, he will need to focus less on “fake news” and premature campaign rallies and more on the difficult work of governing, giving his party a set of accomplishments on which to campaign next year. For now, what should really worry Trump is not Mueller. It’s the midterms. With a Democratic generic ballot lead of somewhere between seven and 14 points and no Republican legislative accomplishments to speak of, the fate of House Republicans in November 2018 looks bleak. In this context, the president’s recent flirtation with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi looks like self-immolation.
Perhaps his much-maligned reality TV days do hold one lesson for Trump. If his party’s ratings don’t improve in the next 14 months, their show will be canceled. And then it may be Democratic legislators’ turn to deliver Trump’s favorite line: “You’re fired.”