The Train Is Leaving the Station for the Last Rational Republicans
If they want to save themselves and repudiate Trump, they better do it fast
OPINION — In a classic demonstration of Southern populist oratory at the 1956 Democratic convention, Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement excoriated the misdeeds of the Republican Party by dramatically asking, again and again, “How long, O how long America, shall these things endure?”
As the nation reels towards the end of the second year of Donald Trump’s cataclysmic presidency, Frank Clement’s long-ago question takes on a new urgency. How long, O how long America, will the once-proud Republican Party serve as Trump’s willing enabler?
Sure, there have been bursts of post-election GOP independence on Capitol Hill, such as the party’s refusal this week to (mixed metaphor alert) walk the plank over Trump’s wall. And last week by unanimously rebuking Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and voting to cut off funding for the vicious war in Yemen, the Senate began to forge its own Middle East policy.
But despite the best efforts of Jeff Flake, the Republican Congress will slink out of town without providing statutory protection for the Robert Mueller investigation. And the unqualified Matthew Whitaker — who has never been confirmed by the Senate and who served on the board of a Miami company under criminal investigation by the FBI — will go into the New Year as acting attorney general and Mueller’s supervisor.
Even after losing 40 House seats in the biggest Democratic midterm wave election since 1974, the lockstep Republicans continue to willingly strap on their Trumpian shackles.
The Republican National Committee, in an unprecedented move, is about to effectively merge with the Trump re-election campaign. And South Carolina Republicans, who long have trumpeted their first-in-the-South presidential primary, are considering canceling it in 2020 in order to grease Trump’s road to renomination.
How much does it take to convince Republicans in Congress who the president is and what he represents? Is the Fox News bubble so impenetrable that, like a black hole, not a ray of light or a shred of truth can enter?
After him, the deluge
The details that have emerged in just the last few weeks are devastating. And the hits just keep on coming, from the criminal investigation of the Trump inaugural committee to the closure of the Trump Foundation, which was described this week by the New York attorney general’s office as “little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.”
We now know — thanks to court filings by the Mueller investigation and a signed document obtained by CNN — that Trump was pursuing building a lucrative Moscow hotel while he was running for president as a pro-Putin Republican. Needless to say, Trump’s 23 denials of any business dealings with Russia can only be described as contemptuous lies.
On Tuesday, Emmet Sullivan, a federal judge, bluntly reminded the world that Michael Flynn was not some political hayseed entrapped by the FBI. As Sullivan described it during Flynn’s abortive sentencing hearing, he was instead “a high-ranking senior official of the government making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation while on the physical premises of the White House.”
In what passes for Republican courage these days, Sen. John Kennedy told CNN that the retired general “let the country and the president down.” It apparently never occurred to Kennedy that Trump himself named the retired general as his first national security adviser. Complaining that Flynn “let the president down” is like a Russian peasant robbed by the Cossacks wailing, “If the Tsar only knew.”
In similar fashion, it becomes harder and harder to pretend that Trump won the presidency by legitimate means.
A study prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russian disinformation on social media during the 2016 campaign and afterwards was more extensive and sophisticated than initially had been assumed. As the report unequivocally states, “All of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump.”
Instead of confronting Trump, prominent Republicans are hoping to survive the coming conflagration through denial and distance.
Paul Ryan managed to avoid mentioning the 45th president at all during his Wednesday farewell address, even though Trump has been the only Republican president during his tenure as a see-no-evil speaker. Nick Ayers — perhaps the most ambitious younger politico in the Republican Party — decided that anything was better than serving as Trump’s third chief of staff. And, of course, Nikki Haley, now the most prominent woman in the Republican Party, is bailing out on the administration without ever coming to Washington.
Maybe there might be some strategic rationale for GOP powers to suffer Trump in silence if there were some great legislative achievement within reach in 2019. Instead, just getting Trump to sign appropriations bills will be a daunting challenge, as the president will probably continue to sputter about his phantom wall.
In politics, candidates eager for endorsements have long used a railroad expression: “The train is leaving the station — and you’re either on it or off it.”
That’s the dilemma facing rational Republicans on the cusp of the new year. As court filings suggest that the conclusions of the Mueller investigation will be devastating, there isn’t much time left for Republicans to offer Declarations of Conscience repudiating the 45th president and the lies and corruption that envelop him.
This applies to GOP senators brooding on their legacies like the incoming Mitt Romney and the outgoing Lamar Alexander, who once prudently left the Nixon White House. Add to the list those Republicans who dream of a long-term political future, such as Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse. Finally, there are the GOP senators who face daunting re-election bids in 2020, like the over-praised Susan Collins of Maine, the beleaguered Cory Gardner in Colorado and Arizona’s Martha McSally, who had to apologize to John McCain’s family before she was appointed this week to fill his seat.
Here’s a question for those Republicans who continue to say nothing: Is your timidity based on fear of Trump tweets, a primary challenge or diminished post-congressional opportunities as a lobbyist? Whatever the reasons for this silence, the rest of us will continue to ask, “How long, O how long, America?”
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.