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Op-ed, Woodward book unlikely to change minds about Trump, experts say

President Donald Trump walks off of the stage after speaking at a fundraiser in Fargo, N.D., Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Trump is making his second visit to North Dakota's biggest city within 10 weeks to campaign for Senate candidate Kevin Cramer. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Donald Trump said Friday he may turn to legal action or a Department of Justice investigation to uncover the senior administration official who authored an explosive anonymous op-ed published in the New York Times this week, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., doubts the firsthand account of “resistance” efforts to undermine the president’s agenda from within will hold much sway over the Republican base.

“I don't mean to bust a bubble here, but most people in South Carolina are not going to take the op-ed in the New York Times very seriously,” the senator told CNN Wednesday.

Graham was similarly dismissive of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” in which he recounts aides similarly trying to subvert and manipulate the president.

“Bob Woodward is a good journalist,” he said. “There's no doubt in my mind that whatever he wrote in that book, he had sources for. But at the end of the day, he's going to be judged by results. President Trump, in my world, where I live, in South Carolina, most people are very pleased with what the President's doing."

Experts expect Graham is likely correct about the response of South Carolina Republicans to pretty much any negative news about this president at the moment, but some cautioned against concluding all this will have no effect at all.

“He is trying to be too cute by half there,” said Michael D. Cohen, CEO of Cohen Research Group and a professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. “Maybe South Carolinians don’t care, but there are districts around the country where it could potentially matter.”

Both the Times and the Post are frequent targets of Trump’s ire, and many of his supporters share Graham’s view of the Times as “the voice of the left.” The outlets are considered credible by the general public, though, with more than 50 percent of respondents in a June 2018 Public Policy Polling survey saying they trust each publication more than President Trump.

According to Cohen, the impact of the Times op-ed will depend on who the writer is revealed to be.

“If it really does turn out to be someone like [Vice President Mike] Pence or [Secretary of Defense James] Mattis, people who people know, it may turn some people’s eyes,” he said. “What will happen is that Trump is going to attack whoever this is… If it’s not a principal, the person’s going to get annihilated.”

Republican strategist David Payne suggested the op-ed would have carried more weight if it alleged specific wrongdoing by Trump or specific consequences of his erratic leadership. Instead, it is just the latest in a long line of attacks on his demeanor and style that have piled up in his wake since he entered politics three years ago.

“I don’t think this moves opinion. The nation has already made up its mind about Donald Trump… It’s just Omarosa part two. She was making the same claims,” Payne said, referring to former White House aide and “Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault Newman, who slammed Trump in a memoir released last month.

Hundreds of newspaper articles have been written citing anonymous White House sources disparaging President Trump and detailing how his staff manages his tantrums and tweetstorms. The op-ed may represent a dramatic escalation of that trend, but few in either party were surprised by its depiction of the president.

“It’s a public narrative now,” Payne said. “There are people who dislike Donald Trump’s style and they’re finding new and innovative ways to critique his style.”

As Trump suggested to reporters on Air Force One Friday that he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate and uncover the author, Democratic strategist Craig Varoga predicted his inevitable overreaction to the criticisms in the book and the op-ed will only reinforce the doubts they raised.

“The greatest damage to Republicans is going to come from Trump’s reaction, which typically has been and will continue to be enraged and paranoid,” he said. “Yeah, some of his base will be slow to walk away from this travesty, but for the rest of the country, this is already old and clearly, now, dangerous.”

Trump often boasts that his approval rating among Republicans is upwards of 90 percent in some polls, making him more popular within the party than any other president on record with the exception of George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. These are in large part the kind of people Sen. Graham described, judging the president on the economy, tax policy, military spending, and judicial appointments and tuning out the endless political drama.

“He’s still got his people. I don’t know that he really cares about his overall approval much,” Cohen said.

While it is true none of the chaos and controversy surrounding Trump has damaged his standing among self-proclaimed Republicans, there is no doubt it is all taking a toll on the president. Trump’s approval rating has continued to wallow in the low 40s or high 30s, currently averaging 41.6 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week found disapproval of the president hitting a new high of 60 percent, with 53 percent saying they strongly disapprove. That survey also registered approval of Trump among Republicans matching his personal low of 78 percent, with approval among Democrats at 6 percent, numbers that crystalize how polarized the electorate is.

“Trump’s style has made this political climate what it is,” Payne said. “He owns it. Also, I would say the liberal resistance owns the angst and anger and lack of civility on their side too… You have these two camps feeding the flames on either side.”

Even in places like South Carolina, Trump’s support is not what it used to be. A Morning Consult poll found his net approval in the state slipped by 11 points between January 2017 and June 2018, although 54 percent of registered voters there still view him favorably.

Trump’s unpopularity is particularly surprising in light of a surging economy and a continuing streak of strong employment data. A report released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the economy added 201,000 new jobs in August and the unemployment rate remains below 4 percent.

“This jobs report is further proof that the American people have a basic choice to make in the midterm elections: more growth or less – unprecedented economic progress with a Republican majority backing up President Trump, or a reversal of our successful plan and complete dysfunction from a Democrat majority intent on impeachment,” Trump reelection campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. “With jobs reports like this, the American people will no doubt choose more winning.”

But recent polls suggest the American people will choose exactly the opposite of “a Republican majority backing up President Trump.” Democrats held a double-digit edge in generic ballot matchups in two major polls released this week, and an NBC News/Marist poll showing slim leads for Democratic nominees in Tennessee and Indiana could give them a path to retake the Senate.

“If that happens, we’re in a different ball game,” Cohen said. “Right now, the expectation in D.C. is the Democrats take the House, Republicans keep the Senate. Nothing moves D.C. like a surprise.”

Dire predictions for November seem at odds with Graham’s assertion that voters are driven by results. Despite what he called “an economy on booster rockets,” Payne said the president’s temperament may be dragging him and Republican candidates down. Based on the op-ed and the growing genre of tell-all books portraying him as ill-equipped for his job, even many who work for Trump do not seem to like him.

“You benefit from a good economy the most if you’re likeable,” Payne said.

Perhaps most troubling for Republicans who have largely closed ranks behind Trump, multiple polls show most Americans favor a Congress that serves as a check on the president and concern about corruption is one of the most important issues in the eyes of voters.

A Kaiser Health Tracking Poll released this week found one-third of voters consider corruption in Washington the most important topic for 2018 candidates to discuss, beating out health care and the economy as the most popular answer.

In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, 60 percent of voters preferred a Democratic Congress that will oppose Trump’s agenda, up from 52 percent last year. A plurality of respondents, including a majority of women, supported impeachment proceedings. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll found 59 percent of voters wanted a Congress that stands up to Trump, and only 34 percent wanted one that cooperates with him.

“Republicans are going to lose a lot of elections this fall, at every level of the ballot, because Donald Trump is out of control 24 hours a day,” Varoga said, “and an overwhelming majority of American voters believe that the White House needs adult supervision.”

If that happens, the consequences are difficult to predict. A Democratic House and/or Senate would stall Trump’s agenda, launch countless investigations, and possibly even pursue impeachment, but a large-scale loss would provoke some soul-searching for Republicans and a new House speaker would give Trump an enemy to rile up his base.

“He has a bogeyman then, or maybe a bogeywoman…,” Cohen said, depending on whether Nancy Pelosi or another Democrat is chosen to lead. “He then has a foil and a reason for why things aren’t going well. I could see Trump blaming the House of Representatives for everything.”

A couple of other developments might create a seismic shift in support for Trump in the months ahead in a way an op-ed in a publication the president regularly deems “FAKE NEWS” will not. Payne pointed to the eventual outcome of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s campaign and Russia as one factor that could help or hurt, depending on the findings.

“Watch the party solidify behind him if the Mueller investigation ends without casting any blame at Donald Trump,” he said.

As Sen. Graham suggested, results do matter to voters, and Cohen warned Trump’s historically low approval numbers could tumble even lower if the economy crashes before 2020.

“The real existential threat to him is an economy that’s not killing it,” he said. “If that happens, that’s when there’s a big problem… That’s the one thing voters really do attribute to a president. If the economy is good, they’ll excuse a lot. If the economy is bad, they’ll excuse nothing.”

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