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The trials and tribulations of Trump’s Capitol Hill enablers

Can the GOP become anything other than the party of Trump toadies?

The private plane of former President Donald Trump is parked on the tarmac at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., on Aug. 3 before taking him to Washington, D.C., for a court proceeding.
The private plane of former President Donald Trump is parked on the tarmac at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., on Aug. 3 before taking him to Washington, D.C., for a court proceeding. (AFP via Getty Images)

It is a scene that is probably as old as the world’s first restaurant in China more than 900 years ago. 

Diners, frustrated by dirty plates or empty glasses, try to waylay a passing waiter or waitress. Instead of getting help, the customers are greeted with this predictable reply from the harassed server, “It’s not my table.”

Those four words have, in effect, been the response of most congressional Republicans since Donald Trump launched his first presidential campaign eight years ago by railing against phantom Mexican rapists and murderers surging across the southern border.

In hindsight, it is impressive how many GOP legislators scamped down Capitol Hill hallways to avoid commenting or claimed they didn’t follow the news at key moments in the Trump presidency.

How uplifting it was to watch them duck taking a firm position when Trump insisted there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville in 2017 after white supremacists protesting set off racism-based violence. Or to listen to their convoluted answers about Trump’s “perfect” phone call trying to shake down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

I could go on, but you know the full list. And it seems exhausting to resurrect all the times when see-no-evil Republicans on Capitol Hill took the duck-and-cover approach to commenting on the latest Trump outrage. 

Trump’s latest — and most important — indictment last week changes the calculations for these Republican ostriches. In all likelihood, Trump’s legal and political fate is apt to be the dominant storyline in 2024 with implications for almost everyone on the ballot. 

Already, congressional Republicans are paying a price for their collective case of Trump timidity. The 2018 Senate map was so lopsided (with only eight Republicans up for reelection) that there was widespread talk after Trump’s 2016 election about the midterms producing a filibuster-proof GOP majority.

Nah. 

Instead, the GOP only netted two Senate seats in 2018. And it has only gotten worse for the party since then. When Trump took office, it was hard to imagine the Georgia and Arizona Senate delegations would soon be all-Democratic. In fact, Kevin McCarthy might not even be House speaker if New York Democrats had not mucked up their attempt at gerrymandered redistricting.

Having endured three disappointing congressional elections in a row, partly due to Trump, why should Republicans believe that 2024 will somehow be different? Even if Trump (knock wood) is not the Republican nominee, every GOP candidate will still be pressed to comment on the oft-indicted president’s legal ordeal. 

As a strategy, Republicans have tended to claim that all Trump indictments are examples of politically motivated judicial overreach. But that safe harbor — avoiding talking about the actual evidence against Trump — may not last forever. 

What if, for example, federal prosecutor Jack Smith unveils evidence that goes far beyond what has already been established by the invaluable hearings conducted by the House select committee that probed the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot?

The Wall Street Journal pointedly noted that Mark Meadows, Trump’s final White House chief of staff, is barely mentioned in the 45-page indictment, even though he was present for many meetings about overturning the election.

You don’t have to go too far into to the speculative realm to wonder if a key 2024 question will become, to update a Watergate-era phrase: What did Meadows know and when will he testify about it? 

Up to now, Trump has been partially protected because trials and judicial proceedings in federal courts and New York state do not allow courtroom cameras. So, we have had to make do with courtroom sketch artists providing imagery of Trump pleading, “Not guilty.” 

While this policy probably will prevail, there is a growing clamor to suspend the rules and allow cameras to broadcast all coming Trump trials. Imagine if all America in, say, the summer of 2024 is riveted by the kind of TV reality show that Trump might otherwise appreciate: a former president on trial for trying to overturn an election.

Most congressional Republicans feel inoculated from the Trump trauma because they represent safe districts or GOP-dominated states. Their dominant fear, of course, is a primary challenge from the right, should they deviate in any way from the Trump fantasy universe of stolen elections and “deranged” prosecutors. 

But as all members of the House — aside from the 2023 freshman class — have learned in recent years, there are few things in politics more frustrating than serving in the minority. 

McCarthy’s flimsy five-seat majority depends on holding most of the 18 now-Republican districts that also went for President Joe Biden in 2020. I challenge anyone to explain how the Trump trials will help these House GOP incumbents hang on to the swing voters they need to win in these pro-Biden districts.  

The Senate, with eight Democratic-held seats in play, may be a different story. But, as the Republicans learned in 2018, relying on the Senate map may provide limited consolation if Trump continues to poison the Republican brand among independent voters.

It may be too late for the Republicans to become anything other than the party of Trump toadies. But, at least, consider what might have happened if a chorus of traditional Republicans had joined outspoken figures like former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, or more recently, the Jan. 6 panel vice chair and now-former congresswoman, Wyoming’s Liz Cheney, in their anti-Trump apostasy. 

All you have to do is remember the emotional power of the “La Marseillaise” scene from “Casablanca” or the hundreds of Roman slaves standing up to declare “I am Spartacus” in the 1960 movie epic.

Instead, Flake, Cheney and a few other Republican officials, like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, stood virtually alone as many Republicans admired their forthrightness and moral courage from the silent sidelines. As a result, Trump grew stronger as mainstream Republicans grew more fearful. 

So instead of an “I am Spartacus” moment, the Republicans have had an “I am a Trump enabler” eight years. And now, fittingly, they may be paying the political price as Trump faces the trials of his life.

Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a fellow at the Brennan Center (NYU). 

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