Trump’s Latest Political And Legal Setbacks Don’t Bode Well For 2020

Looking ahead, the political landscape does not look well for the President.

With the political smoke from the government shutdown and the increasingly perilous Russia investigation imploding on him over the past week, President Trump’s political advisers are increasingly worried about his prospects for 2020:

President Trump’s defeat in his border-wall standoff with Congress has clouded his already perilous path to a second term in 2020, undercutting Mr. Trump’s cherished image as a forceful leader and deft negotiator, and emboldening alike his Democratic challengers and Republican dissenters who hope to block his re-election.

The longest government shutdown in history inflicted severe political damage on the president, dragging down his poll numbers even among Republicans and stirring concern among party leaders about his ability to navigate the next two years of divided government. Mr. Trump, close associates acknowledge, appears without a plan for mounting a strong campaign in 2020, or for persuading the majority of Americans who view him negatively to give him another chance.

Compounding the harm to Mr. Trump on Friday was the indictment of Roger Stone, his political adviser for several decades, on charges of lying to investigators and obstructing the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The indictment was taken by some Republicans as the surest sign yet that Mr. Mueller’s investigation is likely to grow more painful to Mr. Trump and his associates before it wraps up.

Mr. Trump still commands the loyalty of a passionate electoral base that has rallied to him in trying moments, and advisers believe he will have room to right himself while Democratic presidential candidates are mired in a long nomination fight. Yet they are also growing anxious that he could face a draining primary of his own next year.

Several prominent Trump antagonists are actively urging other Republicans to take on the president, and a popular governor, Larry Hogan of Maryland, has indicated he is newly open to their entreaties.

In a sign of the White House’s determination to project party unity, a top Trump campaign official, Bill Stepien, traveled to the Republican National Committee meeting in New Mexico this week to orchestrate an ornamental resolution of support for the president. It passed unanimously on Friday afternoon, hailing Mr. Trump for his “effective presidency” even as his shutdown strategy collapsed.

David Winston, a Republican pollster, said the burden was now on Mr. Trump to restore his stature as a leader by forging some kind of border-security deal with Democrats, and to deliver a stronger message on the economy.

“Leadership means results,” Mr. Winston said. “When you have a shutdown, people look at it, basically, as: the political system has failed.”


For now, Mr. Trump remains wholly focused on appeasing his conservative base, comprising perhaps a third of the electorate, despite private G.O.P. polling suggesting that his agenda on immigration has failed to move the country in his favor, Republicans who work closely with the president said.

But Mr. Trump emerged from the shutdown with nothing to show for it, having angered swing voters with his intransigence, while disappointing hard-line supporters by failing to secure any funding for a border wall.

Conservatives still believe that Mr. Trump cannot afford to abandon his crusade for a barrier. Not long before Mr. Trump agreed to reopen the government, Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a White House ally who leads the hard-line Freedom Caucus, argued that the wall fight was vital to the president’s re-election hopes.

“It’s not lost on any of us that a central component of what he said when he ran in 2016 has to be addressed in a meaningful way,” he said in a recent interview.

Privately, some of Mr. Trump’s 2016 aides have said they are pessimistic about his path to 270 electoral votes after his party’s midterm defeats in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. An Associated Press poll on Wednesday showed that Mr. Trump’s overall approval rating had fallen to 34 percent, with his support among Republicans dipping below 80 percent — a startling turn for a president who strives for total control of the G.O.P., and has usually achieved it.

The Mueller investigation looms as another destabilizing force for the president. David Kochel, a Republican strategist based in Iowa who is opposed to Mr. Trump, said the special counsel’s eventual report could determine whether Mr. Trump is vulnerable in a primary.

“That will be a focusing mechanism for the party,” Mr. Kochel said.

While core Republican voters remain loyal to him and he is not currently facing a contest for the nomination, Mr. Trump’s low standing with political moderates and especially women is leading some G.O.P. officeholders to voice unease about having him at the top of the ticket next year.

“I think it’s healthy and appropriate for the party to consider in 2020 whether this is really the path it wants to continue taking,” said David F. Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, where a Democrat won a stunning House upset last year thanks in part to the suburban antipathy toward Mr. Trump.

As a general rule, the political odds favor incumbent Presidents in their re-election bids. This has been especially true in the post World War Two era, which has seen only three incumbents Presidents lose their re-election battles, with one of those being Gerald Ford, who had not previously stood for election as either President or even Vice-President. Of the 10 elections involving incumbent Presidents over that time period,  seven have won re-election. This includes the period from 1992 through 2017 during which three incumbents were re-elected, a streak that we’ve only seen once before in American history when Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were all re-elected during the period from 1800 through 1820. Additionally, as I noted earlier this week, primary challenges in the modern era have proven to be unsuccessful, although they have managed to bruise incumbents in some cases, specifically in the cases of Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Taking that into account, along with the fact that, notwithstanding his continuously perilous job approval numbers, Trump’s base remains stunningly loyal to him it’s still far too early to count the President out in 2020.

All that being said, there are a tremendous number of reasons why the President seems to be clearly headed into the 2020 fight facing tremendous risks. At the top of that list are the same approval numbers that show that his base of support has been more or less stable since the start of his Administration. As I’ve noted before, these numbers also show that this President, unlike any other since the end of World War Two, has never seen his job approval numbers go above, or even approach 50%. The close he’s come in the RealClearPolitics average has been at the start of his Administration and for a brief period this past summer when his numbers approached but did not exceed, 44%. While this is better than his low point and isn’t that far away from the 46.1% of the vote he got in the 2016 election, it’s most likely not going to be enough to win in 2020. Add into all of this the probability that future political and legal developments are likely to weigh heavily against the President, and it seems clear that he has plenty to worry about.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    Well, Nancy Boy has to keep on at least pretending to be President Tough Guy, or his base–some parts of it, anyway–might grow disenchanted. Things with Trump change from minute to minute, but my guess at this point is that he’ll go for the national emergency option when 3 weeks are up. Or maybe sooner, if the weakling taunts get too much for him.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    However, after two terms, the fundamentals models say the incumbent party is at a disadvantage. I’m sure there are more sophisticated explanations, but I call it the Unicorns and Rainbows factor. These people have been in power seems like forever and we still don’t have unicorns and rainbows, throw ’em out. Seems like Trump’s pretty much reached that point in two years. The other big factor is economic growth just before the election. That’s kind of random, but odds don’t seem in Trump’s favor. And Trump benefited from D indifference in 16 which seems unlikely in 20.

    Trump is going to be thwarted at every turn by Pelosi and the House Ds. There’s no reason to expect a change in the chaos in the WH. Trump and his accessories are going to be subject to two years of legal actions and indictments. I’m sort of hoping he’s dumb enough to add a declaration of national emergency over the wall to the legal stew. Push comes to shove, I don’t think even Johnny and the Federalists are eager to accept that over a minor, and unpopular, funding dispute, especially with the real probability of a D Prez in 21.

    Twenty plus Ds and a couple of Rs smell blood in the water. Even Brave Sir Willard voted for the D funding bill.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    That picture of Trump makes me think of a chicken that’s just gone through a spin dryer.

  4. DrDaveT says:

    At this point, the real question is whether or not Trump can win the GOP nomination. He comes with a guaranteed floor, and a hard ceiling — even if you set aside all of the moral and ethical reasons to loathe him.

    I will be making extra popcorn in anticipation of the GOP tearing itself apart over whether they wish to double down on the evil, or admit that they all backed evil for 4 years, or try to find a spin that avoids both…

  5. Bill says:

    After watching the state of Florida elect Rick Scott, who defrauded the federal govt of hundreds of millions of dollars, to office 3 times in 8 years, I don’t easily dismiss Trump getting re-elected in 2020.

  6. CSK says:

    This is how you explain Trump: In addition to the fact that he’s a failed social climber, and has dedicated his life to revenge against those who rejected him, he has no capacity for negotiation, because that requires knowledge, the ability to look at both sides, reason, and the brains to envision short-term and long-term gains and losses, and he sorely lacks all those qualities. He’s said so himself many a time: He operates on gut feeling, which is another way of saying that he’s impulse-driven. Even worse, he can be more easily manipulated than a toddler. If you want him to do something, you either goad him (as Mulvaney did) or taunt him (as Coulter did), or you flatter him outrageously.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    He’s not quite done but it’s definitely time to flip him over.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    For about 18 month now I’ve said Trump’s best option is: Pardon, Resign and Flee. It’s almost too late for that, but if he had anything going on in that tiny brain he’d GTFO while he still can. The NY state AG hasn’t gone hard after him yet, but will. Mueller and the SDNY already have his balls in their pockets. His business is in ruins. His brand is toxic. And in short order his son and son-in-law are likely to be charged with felonies. Trump will quite soon face the stark choice of pardoning his children and cementing obstruction charges, or watching them be indicted and convicted.

    If I were playing his hand I’d pardon everyone including myself, quit, and head for some country with weak extradition treaties. He is in far worse shape than he knows, and far, far worse shape than his culties know. This is no joke, he is screwed.

  9. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    But he won’t do that, Michael, because if he did, he’d be a…loser. Anyway, he’s still suffering from the delusion that he’s beloved. Didn’t he Tweet recently that if it weren’t for the Fake News, he’d have a 75% approval rating?

    By the way, is Melania still in Florida? Interesting how she abandoned him in a crisis.

  10. Mister Bluster says:

    Just heard someone on the radio ask “can Nancy Pelosi back up the car and run over him again?”

  11. Teve says:

    By the way, is Melania still in Florida? Interesting how she abandoned him in a crisis.

    Melania’s favorite place to be is several states away from Donald.

  12. Kathy says:

    Trump joke:

    Back in college, Trump arrives one Monday morning to class with bandages over both ears.

    A friend asks him what happened.

    “I was ironing my shirt,” Trump explains, “when the phone rang. I mistook the iron for the phone, and burned my right ear.”

    “Oh, that’s awful!” the friend sympathizes. “But what happened to your other ear?”

    “The damned phone kept ringing!”

  13. Teve says:

    Interesting thread from Jay bookman on Twitter:

    The modern GOP has degenerated into a group of people who have agreed to tell each other and believe impossible but reassuring things, to the point that the willingness to eagerly believe all those impossible things has become the glue that holds a crumbling party together. 1/10
    A wall paid by Mexico? Climate change, a conspiracy among scientists to get rich? We’ll raise more revenue by cutting trillions in taxes? Trade wars are easy to win? Our most oppressed minority is white Christians? Impossible, but if you believe it, then I’ll believe it too. 2/10
    It wasn’t always like this. GOP leadership once understood that such things were nonsense, that you might say them but never act upon them, and it governed accordingly. But over time, those who knew such things to be basic nonsense were RINO’d out by those who do not. 3/10
    That’s how they’ve ended up in the grasp of Trump, a man unrivaled in his ability to pitch the impossible. He has zero interest in whether the product he’s selling can actually work; his sole concern is whether he can get you to buy it. So a perfect match of conman and mark 4/10
    The GOP has also created a formidable media machine to enforce that belief in the impossible, to ensure no doubt or skepticism can creep in. Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh, etc., act as powerful thought police, much as political commissars in the old Soviet Union once did. 5/10
    Tenaciously, ferociously, they police each other’s thoughts and statements, because again, it is their mutual willingness to keep believing the nonsensical that binds them together, that gives their movement meaning. If that falters, it all collapses. 6/10
    And today, it is faltering. The responsibilities of actual governance have proved to be incompatible with continued belief in the nonsensical, putting the country in danger. And we find the perfect embodiment of that conflict sitting in the Oval Office. 7/10
    Republicans have agreed among each other to believe that Trump is a mighty leader literally ordained by God to rebuke the libs and lead them out of the wilderness. That belief has become central to the GOP identity, and none dare publicly question it. 8/10
    Yet every day, and practically every waking hour of every day, we see proof that Trump is morally & intellectually incapable of even the basics of governance. Most Republicans who admit that to themselves are not yet willing to admit it to each other, because … what then? 9/10
    Well, when the responsibilities of governance have proved to be incompatible with continued belief in the nonsensical, isn’t it possible — difficult, but possible — to drop that belief in the nonsensical and look again with clear eyes? Isn’t that the start? 10/10