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Latest Bolton revelations are no game-changer

President Donald Trump entered the fall’s impeachment hearings as an unstoppable force. Despite siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin in opposition to U.S. intelligence, or facing sexual assault allegations from nearly 20 women, or getting caught lying or misleading the public more than 15,000 times since taking office, Trump has effectively inoculated himself from political destruction. Statements and actions — any one of which might have ended anyone else’s career — seem only to have hardened his support.

Gallup’s final poll of 2019 encapsulates this narrative: 45 percent of respondents approved of his presidency, only one point below his all-time high. Meanwhile, only 51 percent disapproved the second-lowest mark since February 2017.

Ironically, this is all playing out amidst Republicans House members retiring in droves. Meanwhile, in the past three years, 13 state legislators have left the GOP; for context, only 17 state legislators left the GOP in the 21 years prior.

So despite becoming only the third impeached president, despite rarely reaching 50 percent approval in any poll, despite House Republicans losing a net of 50 seats since Trump’s election (247 in November 2016 to 197 today), and despite a record pace of defections—in addition to everything else that’s been thrown at him, or that he’s thrown at himself—Trump somehow entered last week’s Senate impeachment trial as emboldened as ever. 

Collaborating with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and promising swift and brutal payback toward any GOP senator who crosses him, the president found himself in familiar territory: conceivably beleaguered, but in fact, empowered.

And now we have the 500th “Surely Trump can’t withstand this” revelation. On Sunday “The New York Times” reported on John Bolton’s unpublished manuscript, in which the former National Security Advisor claims, among other things, that the president knowingly withheld Ukraine funding until the country initiated an investigation into the Bidens. 

Never mind that two months ago European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland made the same assertion under oath. In today’s world, one party’s truth is another’s fiction. The only hope is to find more corroborators to bolster the case.

But we’ve watched this game before. How many times have Democrats believed they’ve cornered Trump — that they have enough evidence to pull enough Republicans to their side? U.S. Representative and House impeachment manager Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) calls the Bolton revelations a “game-changer.” Really?

Zero House Republicans voted to impeach the President. That’s zero out of 197. It was a vote on the relatively low threshold of sending articles to the Senate, and no one broke ranks. The much higher threshold is removing him, which requires 20 of 53 Republican senators, assuming all 47 Democratic-aligned senators (including two independents) remain unified — a near-impossibility regardless of new revelations.

The release of Bolton’s unpublished claims might compel Senate testimony. But even if they do, this is no game-changer. This is not Vice President Mike Pence or future formidable presidential candidate Nikki Haley claiming high crimes or misdemeanors by a sitting president. This is yet one more Republican whom the president and his friends easily can redefine as a disgruntled former employee. 

In fact, Monday morning Trump did just this, tweeting that Bolton was lying and only trying to sell books.

Again, we have seen this play dozens of times with dozens of stalwart Republicans well-respected within their party. Each time, elected GOP officials rush to defend the president. And why not? Their political bread is buttered not by career diplomats like Bolton, but by a sitting president with a more than $100 million war chest.

So let’s slow down the “game-changer” talk. It will take a lot more than corroborated evidence to take down this president.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of Polis: Duke University’s Center for Politics, part of the Sanford School of Public Policy. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.

Tags Donald Trump Gordon Sondland John Bolton Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Nikki Haley Vladimir Putin Zoe Lofgren

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