At the beginning of the day on Wednesday, I said that the two most important things to watch for at Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee were:
- Does it put pressure on Democrats to call for an impeachment investigation?
- Does it move public opinion of the president?
At the end of the day on Wednesday, my answer to both questions is no.
Despite a full-court press from high-profile activist/billionaire Tom Steyer, the Democratic leadership has been unified in cautioning against rushing forward on impeachment. Their reasoning essentially comes down to these two points: first, there aren’t the votes in the Senate to convict Trump, and second, there is a tremendous potential for this entire episode to backfire on Democrats as it did to Republicans in 1998.
Thus far, Democratic leaders haven’t had to push too hard to keep their members on the same page. At some point, they may have no choice but to relent to grassroots pressure from a riled up and frustrated base. But, when Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, not exactly a Trump sympathizer, tells MSNBC’s Katy Tur on Wednesday afternoon that "we’re not there yet" on impeachment, it says to me that that pressure hasn't reached a boil yet.
I listened to almost all of the hearing, and I didn’t hear any Democrat on the Oversight Committee raise the issue of impeachment. When asked by reporters post-hearing if he thought that the hearing showed that the president committed a crime in office, Chairman Elijah Cummings pointed to the check signed by Trump produced by Cohen and said: "it appears that he did." Even so, Cummings cautioned that it was important for him — and others — to wait for a final Mueller report before coming to a final conclusion.
Opinions of the president:
We also know that opinions of this president are pretty much set in concrete. In December of last year, Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones pointed to Gallup polling data showing that Trump’s job approval ratings have had "less movement than all previous presidents' ratings during their first two years in office…To date, Trump has averaged 39% job approval as president, with his survey ratings ranging from a low of 35% to a high of 45%. The 10-percentage point range in Trump's approval is the smallest for any president during his first two years in the Oval Office by a significant margin."
We also know that opinions about the president’s character have also been pretty stable. And, those opinions have been consistently low.
The month he was sworn into office, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that just 13 percent of Americans said they were "very confident" that the new president had the right set of personal characteristics to be president. Almost half (46 percent) of Americans said they were "not at all confident" he did.
Fast forward two years, and opinions of Trump’s personal characteristics remain the same. By January of 2019, just 16 percent said they were ‘very confident’ Trump had the right set of personal characteristics to be president, while 50 percent were ‘not at all confident.'
A Pew Research poll from April of 2017 found that 51 percent of Americans trusted Trump less than they trusted "what previous presidents said while in office." By early January of 2019, those who trusted Trump less than previous presidents rose by seven points — to 58 percent. As a point of reference, in June 2003, just 32 percent of Americans said they trusted President George W. Bush less than previous presidents. By January of 2007, with opposition to the Iraq war in full force, the percentage of those saying they trusted Bush less than previous presidents rose 20 points to 52 percent. Trump started his presidency at 51 percent.
In other words, opinions of the president’s personal character are baked into the cake. Even Republicans don’t think he’s particularly upstanding in the ethical department. A January 2019 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that just 63 percent of Republicans see the president as honest and trustworthy, and only about half of Republicans (53 percent) think he has high personal and ethical standards. By the way, only 18 percent of independent voters see him as honest and trustworthy or believe he has high personal and ethical standards.
Moreover, there was nothing that Cohen discussed in his testimony that voters hadn’t already heard about Trump: he paid off a mistress (with the help of the National Enquirer), he used his charity as his own slush fund, and he lied about his ongoing negotiations about the Trump Tower Moscow deal. Even his attack on Trump’s character – “he’s a racist, he’s a con man, he’s a cheat’ – is something that has been said about Trump for the last three years.
As such, there's little to no chance it is going to change the opinions of the president in a meaningful way.
As we have learned over the last two plus years, we wait for the tweet. Or tweets. As I write this on Wednesday night, the president has been quiet. Of course, it’s also just about 6 AM in Hanoi. But, how Trump responds to the testimony will be important. Republicans on the Oversight Committee chose to focus exclusively on undermining Cohen’s character. Will Trump be able to stay as disciplined? Or will he try and push back on accusations brought by Cohen? Doing so may only get him into deeper political and legal trouble. But, as we know, Trump is more interested in looking tough than he is in playing it safe.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite