Pundits who dismiss the idea of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan running for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination make an assumption — that Donald Trump will still be in office a year from now. As assumptions go, that’s a fairly big one. It means Trump survives the Mueller investigation.
I only half-listen to talking-head speculations about Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and what illegal activities he might have discovered with regard to Russia, Trump and Trump’s 2016 campaign. One of the first advisories I received in the news business: You can prepare to report the deaths or indictments of public figures, but don’t predict them, even if your sources are good. So, to my ear, all the conjecture about what Mueller’s investigators might have on Trump is, for now, chatter to fill the 24-7 news cycle.
But, at some point, Mueller will finish his work and he will file a report. And, assuming that report becomes public — another big assumption, given Trump’s authority over the Justice Department and the absence of law requiring the report’s release — we will know whether Trump knew about Russian interference in the election. While it’s possible Mueller finds no wrongdoing by Trump, it’s also possible he finds evidence of the collusion Trump repeatedly denied. He might find evidence that Trump obstructed justice, too.
In that case, you’d be advised to hedge bets on Trump getting his party’s nod next year.
I know: It sounds crazy. It’s natural to think that Trump, with still-strong support among Republican voters and Teflon-like protection from his sycophants in the Senate, will weather any storm. But if Trump is implicated in scheming with the Russians, or in obstructing justice, Republican senators might break ranks; they might even force Trump to resign. As the president likes to say, nothing is off the table.
I know: That all seems far-fetched, given Trump’s generally high approval rating among Republicans. But, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found one in three Republicans and Republican-leaning voters expressing a desire for a 2020 candidate other than Trump. That’s significant. Throw in a Mueller report that puts Trump at the scene of a crime — or with direct knowledge of one — and he will be even more damaged.
Under normal circumstances, this would pave the way for a serious primary challenge of an incumbent president.
And I know: There is nothing normal about these times. Leaders of the Republican Party have been all-in for Trump. So, I agree: The prospect of people like Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell, or evangelicals, falling away from Trump seems remote right now.
But, consider that, in many respects, they’ve already gained what they wanted from him: Two justices on the Supreme Court, dozens of conservatives on lower federal courts, a big tax break for corporations and the wealthy, sabotage of the Affordable Care Act, and various forms of deregulation to benefit business. Given all that, do they really need a second Trump term?
Let’s say Trump becomes so damaged that all he can count on is the unfailing support of his hardened base, the people with the Make America Great Again hats who filled his rally halls. This time, that won’t be enough to win the general election. It’s entirely possible that, faced with losing the presidency, party leadership looks for a relative moderate like Larry Hogan.
In that light, Hogan looks pretty good. He’s a Republican businessman who won a second term as governor of a blue state, so the buzz about him is understandable. Hogan would appeal to Never Trumpers, Trump supporters who have fallen off the MAGA caravan, and independent voters who think the prospective Democratic candidates are too far to the left.
Now that I’ve laid all that out, let me stop here and emphasize what I’ve already acknowledged: These scenarios are far-fetched; they only make sense under normal conditions, and there’s nothing normal about the Trump presidency. If Mueller gets anything on Trump, it will have to be something approaching dark evil to cause him to resign or lose the 2020 nomination. It’s almost impossible to imagine senators like Graham and McConnell, or evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., turning on Trump.
And the Republican Party is not going to change anytime soon. The extreme forces that have defined the party for years now — from the Gingrich era to the rise of the tea party to the election of Trump — still dominate. So, even if Hogan were to be convinced to run against Trump, would enough Republicans be interested in his grownup common-sense, his aversion to controversial positions, his expressed desire for bipartisanship and his love of highways to nominate him?
I doubt it.