Trump tries to spin impeachment into re-election gold
“In reality they’re not after me they’re after you,” words printed in large block letters over the photo read. “I’m just in the way.”
The photo encapsulates how Mr Trump is trying to spin impeachment from a black mark into a boon for the president’s 2020 re-election campaign. He is portraying impeachment proceedings initiated by House Democrats as an attempted coup to disenfranchise Americans who backed him because orthodox politicians had long ignored people dubbed “deplorables” by Hillary Clinton.
As Democrats and Republicans debate when and how the Senate will convene a trial — in which Mr Trump is expected to be acquitted — political strategists are consumed with whether the impeachment will make it easier or harder for the Democratic presidential nominee to beat Mr Trump in November 2020.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, long resisted the move to impeach Mr Trump, because she worried it would energise his base. But advocates of impeachment argued that not doing so could anger the Democratic base and sap voter enthusiasm to drive turnout at the polls.
Tom Daschle, the Democratic Senate minority leader when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, said Mr Trump’s impeachment would have “minimal” impact on the presidential race.
“The pro and anti-Trump voters have already made up their minds. Impeachment won’t change them,” he said. “Swing voters will have a myriad of other issues that will affect their vote over the next year. In November of 2020, this will be history.”
Patti Solis Doyle, presidential campaign manager for Mrs Clinton in 2008, echoed that view, saying it had “pretty much changed nothing”.
“The president’s supporters continue to support him, even more so. Those who oppose him continue to oppose him, even more so,” said Ms Solis Doyle. The bad news for Mr Trump, she added, was that his “prospects for re-election were not great” even before impeachment.
But Laura Schisler, a Trump supporter from Pittsburgh, said Republican voters in Pennsylvania, a key swing state, were now more intent on re-electing him than ever.
“Pennsylvania Republicans are very energised, and this impeachment situation just invigorated them,” Ms Schisler said. “It’s got the fence sitters taking a stand.”
According to Gallup, 46 per cent of Americans back removing Mr Trump from office, six points fewer than when the impeachment inquiry began, due to lower support among independent voters.
Mr Trump is relying on the strong economy to help win re-election, and hopes that his recent US-China trade deal will buoy voters in rust-belt and farming swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which he won in 2016.
He still enjoys strong support among Republicans. But there are nascent signs that parts of the coalition that elected him in 2016 have been troubled by the scandal surrounding the July phone call with Ukraine’s president, which touched off the impeachment inquiry. In it, Mr Trump pushed for the announcement of probes into the former vice-president and political rival, Joe Biden, and into debunked theories that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
One surprising element of his 2016 win was how evangelical Christians, who might otherwise look askance at a twice-divorced man alleged to have had multiple extramarital affairs, rallied behind him. On Thursday, Christianity Today, a publication founded by the late Billy Graham, the highly influential Evangelical leader, caused a stir with a call for Mr Trump to be removed from office.
The op-ed said the president had violated the Constitution in a “profoundly immoral way.” Mr Trump shot back in a tweet on Friday morning: “Christianity Today . . . would rather have a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns. No President has done more for the Evangelical community.”
Some evangelicals earlier this year accused Mr Trump of abandoning Kurdish and Christian allies in Syria in the fight against Isis. Pat Robertson, another influential evangelical leader, at the time warned that the president was “in danger of losing the mandate of heaven”.
A Senate impeachment trial could upend the Democratic presidential race, since five candidates are senators who will have to serve as jurors in Washington, curtailing their ability to campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In the longer term, some Democrats worry that focusing on impeachment will see candidates neglect critical campaign issues that would do more to help the party beat Mr Trump in 2020. Andrew Yang, one of the 2020 contenders, urged his rivals during the Democratic debate on Thursday to stop obsessing over impeachment and focus on “solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected.”
Mr Trump hopes that some Democrats who want the focus to be on bread-and-butter economic issues will jump ship. On Thursday, his 2020 campaign launched a “Democrats for Trump” coalition aimed at attracting disaffected Democrats who “refuse to support witch hunts”.
While analysts debate the race for the White House, Ms Pelosi is also worried about the 30-plus House Democrats elected in 2018 from districts that Mr Trump won.
If he wins re-election in 2020, and Republicans keep control of the Senate while Democrats lose the House, the president would have four more years with very few hurdles to block his path.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi