Media  Global Economy  2019.04.15

Trump's approval rating will not fall despite Cohen's testimony:The Hanoi breakdown will redirect Trump's attention to trade talks

The article was originally posted on Webronza on March 12, 2019

The Hanoi breakdown was a success for Bolton but a failure for Trump

As I explained in my previous article "The breakdown of the Hanoi summit has put Japan-US trade talks higher on the agenda," the breakdown of the US-North Korea summit meeting in Hanoi is in large part attributable to the testimony made before US Congress by Michael Cohen, a former lawyer for and confidant of US President Donald Trump. The testimony was a major shock for Trump.

The time difference between Hanoi and Washington, D.C. meant that Cohen's testimony came just between the first and second days of talks. Having seen this shocking testimony, Trump likely concluded that a lukewarm, compromising agreement which he had expected before the summit meeting would invite a backlash in the United States.

In all likelihood, Trump told North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that a high-level deal (meaning complete denuclearization, a deal that North Korea would not have expected) was needed and that unless such a deal was agreed upon, he would have no choice but to walk away.

After returning home, Trump denounced Democrats, saying that it was outrageous to arrange such a testimony when the leader was in important talks overseas. This showed that Cohen's testimony upset Trump, which in turn affected the Hanoi summit.

On March 3 in a White House press conference, National Security Adviser John Bolton stressed that the summit was a success, not a failure. However, if no deal or a breakdown of the talks was a success, there was no point in holding the summit in the first place. What Bolton meant must be that he was glad that Trump refrained from making an easy compromise.

Cohen's testimony seemed to have prompted a change in the US position in the summit talks from a compromise that Trump had in mind to a complete denuclearization as called for by Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo attended the final meeting and the subsequent press conference, both of which he was originally not supposed to attend. It was no longer a tete-a-tete meeting between the two leaders.

Unlike Bolton and Pompeo, Trump was apparently ready for a deal with Kim Jong-un before the summit. Otherwise, Trump, known for his dislike of long-distance travel, would not have gone all the way to Hanoi. He intended to offset his failure in domestic politics with a success in diplomacy.

Both Bolton and Pompeo were poles apart in priority from Trump: the former putting national security first and the latter preoccupied with winning the next presidential election. The summit may have been a success for Bolton but was a clear failure for Trump, whose aim of winning the minds of US citizens with a US-North Korea deal was shattered by Cohen's testimony. Unsurprisingly, Trump was furious with Democrats for having timed Cohen's testimony to coincide with the summit.

Cohen's testimony was full of vitriol. He called Trump a "con man." To Republican legislators who supported Trump, Cohen said that "people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I'm suffering." The testimony, aired on TV across the nation, was also "flashy," as one political commentator on a TV program put it. Cohen branded Trump as being most unfit for US president, putting his interest and desire first and not thinking a bit about the nation. Trump came home, damaged by Cohen's testimony as well as by the botched summit.

"The legislative branch versus the executive branch" rather than "Republicans versus Democrats"

It seems that Cohen's testimony had a major impact not only on Trump but also on his supporters. A case in point is Congress's resolution against Trump's national emergency declaration.

Since his presidential election campaign, Trump has been insisting that a wall be built on the Mexican border as a measure against illegal immigrants. Trump planned to free up funds for building the wall by going out of his way to shut down part of the federal government. But this plan was opposed by the public and refused by Democrats, who took up a majority in the House of Representatives following the midterm elections.

The subsequent agreement between Democrats and Republicans had not been approved for the allocations of budget for the wall's construction as called for by Trump. For Trump, the Hanoi summit was meant to make up for this lost ground.

The Hanoi summit ended in failure nevertheless. The failure to build the wall means that Trump cannot deliver on his biggest campaign pledge. This will work against his chances of winning the presidential election next year.

In his capacity as president, Trump declared the inflow of immigrants as a national emergency in a bid to redirect part of the defense budget to fund the wall's construction. The House of Representatives passed a resolution against this declaration by a large margin of votes, 245 to 182. In addition to Democrats, 13 representatives from Trump's Republican Party dissented, throwing their support behind the resolution.

Then the focus was on how the Republican-dominated Senate would act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted that the resolution would pass the Senate by a vote of 51 to 49, with four Republicans dissenting. Even if the resolution was passed, Trump would use his veto power to construct the wall.

What surprised me, however, was that because of Cohen's testimony, Trump seemed to be losing support from Republicans. I asked several American friends of mine whether my view is correct. One of them, a university professor, asked the same question to his colleagues specializing in American politics for me. I received unexpected answers from these respondents, and they were unanimous in some important aspects.

First, these respondents stated that the Republican dissidents were of the opinion that budget allocations should be up to Congress to decide under the Constitution and that this authority of Congress must not be negated by presidential powers. The respondents maintained that the conflict should be interpreted as the legislative branch versus the executive branch, rather than a partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assisted Trump in revising the tax system and winning approval of the nomination of a Supreme Court judge. But McConnell advised Trump against declaring a national emergency as he later did.

Of the four dissenting Republican senators, Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) have been against Trump's policies all along. For example, Murkowski opposed the nomination of Mr. Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court judge. Susan Collins and Thom Tillis (NC) are from a swing state, rather than a "red" state or a Republican-dominated state. Rand Paul (KY) likely opposed as a matter of principle.

Rand Paul said that around ten Republicans would dissent. Among them was Lamar Alexander (TN), who can act on his conscience because he says he will not run in the next election. Cory Gardner might approve the resolution as he is from Colorado, a state in the process of turning blue (a Democrat-dominated state) from red. He is seen by many to be the most unsuccessful candidate in the next election. Other likely Republican dissidents include former presidential candidate Mitt Romney (UT) and Marco Rubio (FL).

(Note: On March 14, the Senate passed this resolution by a vote of 59 to 41, with 12 Republicans dissenting. Of the senators mentioned above, Gardner stayed on the party line. Trump vetoed the resolution. The House of Representatives failed to secure a two-thirds vote to override the veto on March 26.)

Republican legislators' loyalty to Trump will remain unwavering

Unlike Japan's Diet, there is no such thing as compulsory adherence to a party decision in US Congress, where ruling party legislators can vote against a proposal made by the ruling party or the executive branch while opposition legislators can vote for such a proposal. In fact, this is a common practice in the US Congress. Whether each legislator has voted for or against what bill or proposal is made known to the public and subject to approval or disapproval by his or her constituency. This will clearly influence their voting behavior in the next congressional election. Accordingly, legislators cast their vote in Congress always mindful of the interests and expectations of their constituencies. Republican legislators, who should vote for free trade by nature, may vote against it if many industries in their constituencies will have to compete with imports.

No practice of compulsorily adhering to a party decision means ferocious lobbying, where supporters for and opponents against a bill/resolution exert their influence on legislators who are undecided on that bill/resolution. The resolution on the national emergency declaration, which may have seemed indicative of Republicans' waning support for Trump, was just one such resolution. Cohen's testimony played no part. This is another point on which American friends who answered my question agreed.

Rather, Republican legislators' support for Trump seems unwavering. Not many Republicans have voted against the national emergency declaration, although most of the legislators should have voted against it because the declaration encroaches on the budgetary powers of Congress. This is because without Trump's backing, few Republican candidates will have the chance of winning the primaries to be nominated for the final election. Conversely, if Trump puts up a rival candidate in a primary, there will be little chance of winning that primary. Mark Sanford, a former House member from South Carolina who also served as governor of that state, was defeated by a rival candidate who supported Trump in the 2018 Republican primary and was thus unable to move on to the final election. This rival candidate was defeated by a Democrat candidate in the final election. Republican legislators cannot possibly vote against Trump's policy unless they are extraordinarily principled or under extraordinary circumstances.

Republican legislators are afraid of Trump simply because of the rock-solid support for Trump from members of the Republican Party. This support base, in which nine out of every ten Republicans support Trump, has remained unwavering despite Cohen's testimony. A recent poll, conducted on March 3, shows that 89 percent of Republican Party members are in support of Trump.

During his testimony, there was something dubious about Cohen. Many people must have thought that the testimony of the former "villain" should be taken with a grain of salt. Yet his statement that he committed acts of intimidation for Trump on some five hundred occasions was shocking. In spite of all the facts presented, Republican Party members continue to support Trump, who has produced a number of outcomes--that are positive for them--about, among other issues, the reform of the tax system and the nomination of conservative judges to the Supreme Court.

In an increasingly divided society, the more Trump denounces and denigrates the Democratic Party and its supporters, the more supporters of the Republican Party cheer him on and solidify the support base for him. His remarks that seem to be in support of white supremacists are welcomed by many Caucasian supporters of Trump. No matter how scandal-tainted Trump is, they continue to follow him, as he has met their expectations in such areas as the tax system.

A friend who is a Democratic Party supporter describes this phenomenon as a new kind of Stockholm syndrome. (The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response in an abduction or confinement case, in which a captive harbors an excessive sense of solidarity or friendliness toward his or her captors after spending long hours together. A most famous example of the Stockholm syndrome is the Patricia Hearst case in 1974.)

Cohen's testimony shed light on how intense the partisan divide is. Of the Republicans who asked Cohen questions in the testimony session, only one legislator touched on the content of his testimony. (House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made the remark that Trump has done "nothing" wrong.) The rest of the Republicans reportedly focused solely on the qualification and credibility of Cohen as a witness.

What has become clear is the loyalty of Republican legislators to Trump. Some observers say that Cohen's testimony has intensified the partisan divide.

A major source of concern for Trump as he prepares for the presidential election next year is the possibility that his rock-solid support base will be shaken. In particular, Trump cannot afford to disregard the votes of farmers who have traditionally supported the Republican Party. China's higher tariffs on American soybeans are taking their toll on farmers in the Mid-West. This must be why Trump began to stress that it is important for China to abolish tariffs on agricultural produce in US-China trade talks.

Trump may be in conflict with Democrats over the border wall but not over trade issues as both advocate trade protectionism. After the Hanoi failure, Trump will redirect his attention to trade negotiations.

It is important to note here that the framework of the legislative branch versus the executive branch is also relevant to how Congress will respond to trade issues as in the case of the national emergency declaration. Under the US Constitution, the powers to address trade issues rest on Congress, not on the President. Congress just delegates such powers to the executive branch under special law. Nevertheless, Trump has raised tariffs on steel and aluminum and will raise tariffs on autos at his will by taking advantage of Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. This is something many legislators are uncomfortable with. In fact, a bill has already been submitted to the effect that it should be up to the Department of Defense, rather than the Department of Commerce, to decide whether there is a threat to national security as provided for in Section 232. It is reported that this bill has bipartisan support. Attention should be paid to how Congress will act in trade issues.

(This article was translated from the Japanese transcript of Dr. Yamashita's column in "Webronza" on March 12, 2019.)