The unorthodox presidency of Donald Trump has spiced up political science classes on college campuses throughout the United States, and the University of North Georgia is no exception.
Professor Carl Cavalli, who teaches political science at UNG Dahlonega, and professor Douglas Young, who does the same at UNG Gainesville, realized as soon as Trump obliterated a large GOP field of presidential contenders during the 2016 primaries to catapult into the White House that they had a unique teachable moment for their students.
Cavalli and Young believe what they’ve witnessed during Trump’s first year in the White House is unlike anything they’ve ever seen before in their many years studying and teaching U.S. politics.
The two experts in their field gladly accepted an invitation by The Times to share their impressions on the volatile Trump presidency — including Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the president and his team colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election, the probability of Trump getting impeached, whether the president is above the law, how the 2018 midterm elections are shaping up for the two major political parties, and if Trump can survive the unprecedented scrutiny on his presidency to run and win again in 2020.
Here are excerpts of what Cavalli and Young had to say on the various topics:
Has any other president been under such scrutiny so quickly?
Cavalli: I can’t give you a definitive answer, but there is nothing in my recollection of experience that says that somebody was under this kind of investigation this early; I can’t think of anybody. I’m old enough to go back into my childhood into the Nixon years, and I can’t recall anybody that’s faced this level of scrutiny this early in their administration. Even Richard Nixon was at the end of his first term before any actions in Watergate even occurred, let alone the investigations that took place. Ronald Reagan in Iran-Contra was also running for re-election at the point that that began to unfold. So this — beginning within just the first six months of (Trump) taking office is, I think I’m on pretty good ground to say — it’s unique.
Young: When I think of special counsels or special prosecutors, I immediately think back to Leon Jaworski and the Nixon Administration. But the whole Watergate scandal was in President Nixon’s second term. We didn’t have a special counsel until the end of his second term. And then, there was an independent counsel regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, but that was in the second term of the Reagan Administration. And the Ken Starr special investigation of President Clinton was originally about the Whitewater land deal; that was in his second term, too. I mean, I can’t swear to it, but talking off the top of my head out loud, I can say I’m not aware of any other presidency that was investigated this early.
Will Trump be impeached?
Cavalli: The accumulation of the president’s outrageous actions have sort of numbed us to each one. It would take something of the level of a whole new ball game, and I’m not sure I can even imagine that anymore, to get a Republican Congress to move on articles of impeachment. If the Democrats retake one or both houses of Congress you might see movement on that, but even then, securing a conviction in the Senate would take two-thirds of the Senate, and that’s just not going to happen. I’m sure there will be some articles of impeachment that will be introduced. There are of course Democrats who are moving to introduce them now, but as long as it’s Democrats introducing them, it’s not going to happen. It would only become a realistic possibility in any way if you had significant Republican support as well. Impeachment is a possibility, but I would not hold my breath.
Young: I have not read or heard any evidence that there was any actual collusion going on between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and agents of the Russian government. (Former Trump campaign manager) Paul Manafort has not been indicted of that. (Former national security adviser) Michael Flynn has not been accused of anything like that. I just haven’t seen any evidence of that. The longer the investigation goes on without any evidence of collusion, I think (that’s) more ammunition that will give president Trump and his allies to portray themselves as victims of a political witch hunt. But, if serious evidence of actual collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government does come out, or if evidence of some other real corruption does come out, then that’s a whole different situation. Bill Clinton was not impeached for anything having to do with Whitewater. He was impeached for lying under oath and obstruction of justice regarding the sex scandal and covering that up. That’s what’s so fascinating about these independent counsels. So often the original target of the investigation is not what gets the president in trouble, but it’s some other information that is uncovered. Robert Mueller has got 16 lawyers working for him full time now and millions and millions of tax dollars and told “you’re task is to find something illegal here and go after it,” I think the odds are pretty good they will be able to find something.
Is the president of the United States above the law?
Cavalli: I do understand the idea that people are uncomfortable with government prosecutors going on “fishing expeditions” and there are certain limits to that. But you also cannot ask a justice official to ignore evidence of illegal activity that they come across in their investigation. Donald Trump has essentially said don’t touch my finances. It may lead to him firing Mueller. He may use that as his excuse to finally do that. That would certainly lead to some calls for impeachment.
Young: As it is engraved above the Supreme Court building, “equal justice under law.” No one is above the law. President Nixon was the most powerful man in the world. He was re-elected by 49 states and yet he was tripped up by a stupid cover-up of a bungled third-rate burglary that he didn’t even know about. My goodness, I think maybe the United Kingdom might have been the only other country in the world that would have thrown out a leader for something that now looks to a lot of people as pretty trivial. Then you look at Bill Clinton. Wow, he was a much more popular president than President Nixon. The economy was booming perhaps as never before, and yet Bill Clinton was actually impeached and almost thrown out of office because of a bungled cover-up of an affair. Again, I would say that with the exception of Mother England, we’re about the only nation on earth that would even remotely think about getting rid of a leader for something that for the rest of the world looks pretty trivial. If it can be shown that a president has violated the law, that is always a very serious matter with major political consequences.
Would Trump be damaged if Democrats win big in the 2018 midterm elections?
Cavalli: It could, but I would not underestimate this president’s ability to survive under situations that would have ended most other careers. A lot of the numbers do tend to point to the possibility of a Democratic wave like 2010 was for the Republicans and 2006 was for the Democrats. There is a difference in at least the House of Representatives in that there has been significant redistricting going on since 2010. Republicans did a lot of redistricting with the specific goal of electing Republicans There have been no specific prohibitions on partisan gerrymandering in the past so they have been very overtly drawing district lines to try to favor Republicans. That’s happened since 2010. So, even if you do have a Democratic wave, that might blunt the effect of that wave. In other words, they simply may not pick up as many seats as would have been consistent with a typical wave.
Young: If the Republicans get a tax cut law passed that at least the Republican base thinks will significantly reduce their taxes and help the economy, and if the economy continues to improve, I think the Republicans will still hold on to the House and the Senate. I also think that thanks to gerrymandering, which is really a practice that’s been perfected by both parties in state legislatures all over the country, now, of the 435 U.S. House districts there may be no more than 30 or so that are really competitive. The most important election in so many House districts is the primary race because the district is so overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican Party dominated.
Will Trump survive (politically) until the next presidential election in 2020?
Cavalli: Right now I would say yes. I’m not suggesting that he would thrive. His approval rating is pretty low. As long as the economy keeps humming along, and there’s no guarantee that that will happen, but as long as the economy performs well I think he’ll survive until the next election. I think he’ll be crippled by a Democratic majority in one or both house of Congress. He may be limited by a growing number of anti-Trump Republicans not willing to cooperate with him, but the odds are pretty good that he will remain in office at the very least. During re-election years presidents are usually able to bump up their approval ratings at least a little bit. Can he do that? Can he boost his approval rating? Will the economy keep doing well. If it does, he may be able to squeak by. If the economy doesn’t do well, the bottom may drop out. You could see an election much like 1992 when George Bush Sr. ran for re-election and only managed to get 38 percent of the vote. The one thing that is true is that Donald Trump won’t be running as the outsider in 2020. He won’t be draining the swamp, he'd be the swamp. He’ll be running as the insider, as the incumbent, and he’ll have to defend everything right or wrong.
Young: Whenever a celebrity, certainly a politician, gets into any kind of a controversy, the typical course of action is the politician or the celebrity will publicly flog himself and his career will be destroyed. President Trump refuses to do that and a lot of people really like that. They really enjoy how he refuses to knuckle under to what a lot of folks see as politically correct culture. I think that a lot of people see him standing tall. The fact that Trump has a lot of charisma and he can be witty and has a lot of hutzpah, I think a lot of people enjoy that. However, I do think there is a distinct possibility that maybe a moderate conservative Republican like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who’s been very critical of Trump, he might challenge Trump. There are many other moderate conservatives in the party that may challenge Trump, especially if Trump by mid-to late 2019 is going down in the polls.