Politics

House impeachment will strengthen Trump with voters, not weaken him, ex-Bush aide says

Key Points
  • The House of Representatives' likely impeachment of Donald Trump will boost the president's standing with voters, GOP strategist Joe Watkins says.
  • "If Democrats meant to diminish the strength of the president, I think the opposite is probably going to happen," the former White House aide to President George H.W. Bush tells CNBC.
  • Top election analyst Larry Sabato disagrees, arguing "other controversies will take the fore" by November 2020.
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House impeachment will strengthen Trump with voters, ex-Bush aide says

The House of Representatives' likely impeachment of Donald Trump will boost the president's standing with voters, GOP strategist Joe Watkins told CNBC on Wednesday.

"It's fairly obvious that this will be done along party lines, and if anything, if Democrats meant to diminish the strength of the president, I think the opposite is probably going to happen," the former White House aide to President George H.W. Bush said on "The Exchange."

Watkins' comments came while the House debated two articles of impeachment Wednesday, with the Democratic-controlled chamber likely to vote later in the day on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

No Republican members are expected to vote to impeach Trump — though Rep. Justin Amash, an independent from Michigan, will likely vote in favor. Amash, an ardent Trump critic and tea party conservative, left the GOP on July 4, at which point he openly supported impeachment.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota has said he will vote no, and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who is likely to become a Republican, also is opposed to impeachment.

Trump is unlikely to be convicted by two-thirds of the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate in a potential impeachment trial.

"I think at the end of the day, this is probably not going to hurt the president and will probably strengthen him in his bid to run for re-election," Watkins said.

The last president who was impeached by the House, Bill Clinton, saw his approval numbers rise to a near-record level while the inquiry unfolded. His approval rating was nearly 70%, and Republicans lost five seats in the November 1998 midterm elections, about one month after the GOP-held House opened the official inquiry.

Unlike Trump, Clinton, who was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999, did not have to face re-election, due to term limits.

The House's Trump impeachment inquiry was launched earlier this year to determine whether the president had abused his power by mounting a monthslong pressure campaign on the government of Ukraine in order to force it to announce investigations into Trump's political opponents.

Top election analyst Larry Sabato disagreed with Watkins, arguing impeachment will have faded from the news by the time voters head to the polls in November 2020. He said he did not think it would be the "central" factor in the election.

"I think other controversies will take the fore," said Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "And it isn't as though there are a lot of people who are undecided out there. Almost everybody has made up their minds about Donald Trump one way or the other."

Watkins said he thought Trump would be able to include the Democratic attempt to remove him from office into his broader re-election message, which he said would focus on the state of the economy.

In particular, Watkins said, Trump would point to the low unemployment rate, labor force participation and the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, which is expected to be voted on by the House on Thursday.

Sabato, on the other hand, said the state of the economy is only part of the equation. Alluding to former President Ronald Reagan's well-known line from an October 1980 presidential debate, Sabato said voters will ask themselves whether they are better off now than they were four years ago — both financially and how they feel personally and toward the country.

Both Sabato and Watkins agreed it will be a close election.

But, Sabato said, "if any other president had this economy, it wouldn't be close. He'd be close to 60% favorability and would win the election easily. But this will be close because it's Donald Trump."

— CNBC's Christina Wilkie contributed to this report.

VIDEO7:1307:13
Pres. Trump may grow in popularity after impeachment: Former WH aide
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