How Fear and a White House witch hunt changed the stakes for the midterms

Keith Boag looks at the growing challenges facing Donald Trump as he tries to help the Republicans keep control of Congress in November's midterm elections — and potentially save his presidency in the process.

The booming economy hasn't helped Trump's poll numbers. Now, there are new reports of chaos in the White House

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a Republican Party fundraiser in Fargo, N.D., last week. He's made it clear to his supporters that they need to vote in the midterms, because if the Democrats win, he says, they'll try to impeach him. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Almost lost in the bonfire of calamities that engulfed the White House last week was the fact the midterm elections campaign kicked off amidst some of the most confounding circumstances any president has ever faced.

The U.S. economy is expanding, unemployment is down, wages are up and yet Donald Trump's approval rating is suddenly falling in each of the most respected national opinion polls in America. In one survey, he's down six points in just a month.

With the midterm elections eight weeks away, that peculiar reality has to be worrisome for the Trump White House. It suggests Trump's claim to have produced "the greatest economy in the history of America" isn't stirring up voters, and that his tirades against special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into him and his comrades aren't having much impact either.

Republicans knew they faced a dogfight for the House of Representatives this November, but now Trump's sinking approval rating is leading them into territory where they might lose the Senate as well.

The consequences could be near existential for Trump's presidency if Republicans lose either House. Democrats would control committees and budgets and could demand Trump's tax returns, launch investigations into his business dealings, Russian connections and so on.

"In essence, it would be, 'Here's a couple million dollars, hire some staff. Let's go take a look a lot more deeply at this,'" says Mark Harkin, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute.

Trump's strategy

Trump's midterms strategy has been to win not by reaching out and broadening his appeal but by energizing his Republican base against the possibility of his impeachment. He's warning that if Democrats win the House, they'll try for a "do-over" of 2016 (in the words of Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon).

In short, they need to fight as though the midterms were a referendum on impeaching the president.

It's an unconventional strategy that's already had Trump offering up some imaginative reflections on how the constitution works. "I don't know how you can impeach somebody who's done a great job," he said on Fox News recently.

CBC's Lyndsay Duncombe explains how the midterms work:

What’s at stake in the U.S. midterm elections

4 years ago
Duration 3:01
The U.S. midterms are being seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump, and control of Congress is up for grabs. Lyndsay Duncombe explains how the midterms work.

Still, running on impeachment is not such a wild strategy.

Trump's keen instinct for the tribal nature of America's current politics has convinced him that the most effective way to round up Republicans and stampede them to the polls is to scare them with the prospect that Democrats might start the process of removing him from office if they control the House of Representatives.

Most Democrats have essentially drawn the same conclusion — that impeachment is a better issue for Republicans than it is for them. So they squelch the cries for impeachment that sometimes come from their most confrontational colleagues.

White House betrayal

The fundamental assumption behind these calculations was that Republicans are fully devoted to the Trumpian cause; that they're all pulling in the same direction with the rhythm of a rowing crew. 

But the events of the past week have obliterated that fantasy. The most damning criticism now comes from within the administration not without. Unnamed sources close to the president — members of the tribe, it turns out — have gone rogue and are working against Trump.

As White House sleuths worked to sniff out the anonymous "senior official" who betrayed the president in a damning op-ed published in the New York Times last week, the Oval Office, we're told, soon narrowed the list of suspects down to 12.


That's a big number when you attach it to a cadre of senior administration officials the White House believes might describe the president as fundamentally amoral and dangerously unfit to be president. 

The vice-president of the United States amplified the obvious dysfunction when he said he'd take a lie-detector test to prove he didn't write the op-ed — a goofy response to a goofy question — and most of the cabinet felt behooved to say publicly that it wasn't them either.

Then came Fear 

Then came the book. Bob Woodward's account of the presidency, Fear, zoomed up bestseller lists in pre-orders before it came out Tuesday.

It describes in detail an erratic president who is uninformed, unteachable, undisciplined and unfit — and routinely undermined.

Journalist Bob Woodward's new book about the Trump administration says key White House staffers use deception to try to prevent the president from carrying out what they consider to be his bad or dangerous ideas. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Working from pre-released excerpts of the book, several Republican senators — specifically, one who says he considers leaving the party "every morning" and a pair who feel free to speak their mind since they aren't seeking re-election — confessed that it had long been widely known what was going on: The president is seen as unfit and his authority is being usurped by people around him — unelected people — for the supposed protection of the country.

So voters, no matter on which side of the Trump line they stand, now face a serious question of accountability. If they're against him, they surely want a Congress that will hold him to account. If they're with him, they might want a Congress that will hold the renegades around him to account.

In either case, a congressional campaign about a check on the executive no longer sounds like a campaign about impeachment. It sounds more like a campaign to rescue the White House from anarchy.

In any event, for sheer unpredictability and ever-unfolding drama, it promises to be a campaign the likes of which we haven't seen for about two years.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.