Why Comey’s Testimony May Spark Primary Challenge for Trump By Luke Perry
Today’s testimony by James Comey could be the first spark of a primary challenge to Donald Trump in 2020, a rarity in U.S. electoral politics. Here are six reasons why:
Reason #1: James Comey’s testimony directly questioned the integrity and judgement of the president like no other recent Congressional testimony.
Comey testified the president was inappropriately involved in the investigation of Michael Flynn by creating one-on-one situations in which he implied the investigation should end. Comey documented these conversations because he was concerned Trump would publicly lie about their contents. Comey found Trump’s justification for his firing confusing and dishonest, believing Trump defamed him and the FBI.
Reason #2: Republicans displayed little interest in defending the president.
Some GOP Senators questioned Comey for not directly challenging the president or threatening to resign, but Comey provided reasonable and self-deprecating responses. No committee members directly criticized him or his testimony. This lack of partisan enthusiasm was good for the oversight process, but bad for Trump. The president desperately needs his party to thrive, or if things get worse, survive.
Reason #3: The lack of a productive presidency has left Trump vulnerable to internal criticism.
Most seasoned office holders confine public condemnations to their political opposition. Donald Trump has consistently displayed a unique willingness to personally criticize anyone or anything. This places the Republican Party in a precarious position when evaluating how to proceed under the “cloud” of suspicion the Trump campaign and administration has created. Compartmentalizing Trump’s connections with Russia would be much easier if they were achieving their policy priorities.
Reason #4: There is prestige and promise throughout the (mostly) silent anti-Trump GOP faction.
Prominent Republicans have compartmentalized being on the receiving end of Trump’s wrecking ball attacks. These cracks have been set aside for the time being, but certainly not forgotten. It’s easy to envision presidential hopefuls, such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and rising stars, like Ben Sasse and Mike Lee, unifying with senior party members (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, etc.) to produce an alternative to Trump. Such an effort would be bolstered by former presidents (the Bushes) and nominees (Mitt Romney).
Of course, this alignment happened in 2016, but no one can argue Trump is in a stronger electoral position now. Three key variables to his success (unknown potential, Hillary Clinton, and Russian involvement) will not be similarly in play.
Reason #5: The longer unified GOP control is wasted, the more frustrated Congressional leaders will become.
It’s not hard to envision Congressional leadership supporting a Trump alternative if legislation continues to stall and foreign policy remains unsteady. Mitch McConnell has consistently lamented how Trump is undisciplined and off message, making it difficult for the GOP to enact legislation. Paul Ryan has never been comfortable with Trump and vice versa. Ryan agreed with Comey’s assessment that Trump’s request for loyalty was inappropriate, but afterwards chalked it up to inexperience, hardly a sound endorsement. Even Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair, Bob Corker, once part of the campaign and candidate for Secretary of State, described Trump’s presidency as being in a “downward spiral.”
Reason #6: Trump’s problems aren’t confined to DC.
In the states, GOP governors have opposed Trump’s signature healthcare policy of repealing and replacing Obamacare, including Rick Snyder (MI), Asa Hutchinson (AR), Brian Sandova; (NV), and John Kasich (OH), all states Trump won in 2016. There is little doubt Kasich would be supportive of a Trump alternative in 2020, if not seek to be that himself. Rural localities will likely remain supportive of Trump, but if his actions hit their wallets, all bets are off.
Much of the analysis following Comey’s testimony will focus on the prospect of Trump potentially being impeached. Impeachment remains rare and a deeply partisan affair. Republicans do not support impeachment now, and may never, but that doesn’t mean Trump critics will remain silent if the status quo persists. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is the glue that holds the GOP to Trump. If and when he goes, so may the party.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Professor of Government at Utica College. His column Sound Off! critiques various aspects of American politics.