Politics & Policy

As Trump’s Feud with Mueller Escalates, the GOP May Face a Defining Choice

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Will the Party of Lincoln be cowed into becoming an instrument of Trump’s personal brand?

Yesterday, the New York Times and the Washington Post both dropped stories that set Twitter aflame with speculation and outrage.

The Times reported that “President Trump’s lawyers and aides are scouring the professional and political backgrounds of investigators hired by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.” The reason? They’re looking for conflicts of interest that could disqualify members of Mueller’s team, and might even be building a case to fire Mueller.

At the same time, the Post reported that Trump “has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” In other words, it appears as if all options are on the table to block or disrupt the Russia probe. Indeed, the conduct of Trump surrogates looks like an effort to “prep the political battlefield” for a major move against the special counsel. For example, here’s Newt Gingrich last night on Fox News, discussing Mueller’s alleged conflicts of interest:

Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, my friend and former boss, denies that pardons are being discussed, but the Times and Post reports — combined with Trump’s own attacks on Mueller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — point toward potential dramatic developments in the probe. Yes, the president may very well try to fire the special counsel. He may try to force out the attorney general. He may grant mass pardons to family members and close aides. While I think it’s unlikely, he may even try to pardon himself.

If he does any one of these things — much less several in combination — the GOP will have to decide, once and for all, if it is an American political party or a craven, fearful instrument of Donald Trump’s personal brand.

There are very few true-believer Trump allies on Capitol Hill. Sure, there are many folks who are genuinely impressed with the man’s electoral victory and admire his intense connection with his base, but even most of them would admit that he was their last choice in the primaries, that they voted for him because they considered the alternative to be worse, and that the main attraction of his presidency is the chance to pass conservative policies and confirm conservative nominees. They don’t trust him and they don’t like him. But — and this is important — at some level many of them fear him, or at least fear what he could do to their careers.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Here we are, six months into his first term, and aside from the Judge Gorsuch nomination, meaningful conservative victories have been few and far between. Scandals and self-inflicted wounds abound. Planned Parenthood is still funded, Obamacare is still alive, and tax reform is still mainly a pipe dream. Trump has proven that he can and will blow up any and all news cycles at will. He’s proven that he sees loyalty as a one-way street: “You’re for me, and I’m for me.” No matter your record of previous support or friendship, you must do what he wants or face his public wrath. Yet still the GOP wall holds.

Already Republicans have proven their capacity to defend conduct they’d howl about if the president were a Democrat. Trump has lost a campaign chair, national-security adviser, and foreign-policy adviser as a result of deceptions or problematic ties to Russia and its allies. His campaign chair, son, and son-in law took a meeting with Kremlin-linked Russian officials in furtherance of a professed Russian-government plan to help him win. He impulsively shared classified information with the Russian ambassador to Washington. He fired FBI director James Comey, unquestionably misled America about his reason for doing so, and trashed Comey’s reputation in front of our Russian foes. He and his team have made so many false statements about Russia that an entire cottage industry of YouTube videos exists to chronicle them.

Democrats and the media have of course overreached as well, providing ample fodder for those who want to retreat to a position of pure partisan criticism. But one must ask: Is there a line that Trump can’t cross? Does the truth matter, or will the GOP act as his defense attorneys all the way to the bitter end?

It’s safe to say that not one Republican officeholder ever thought they’d be defending conduct like Trump’s. It’s also safe to say that not one ever thought they’d do so for such meager political gains. Nor could they have imagined fearing mean presidential tweets or crude presidential insults. Yet here we are. Trump commands his legions, and GOP careers seemingly hang in the balance.

Call me pessimistic, but we’re moving toward a political reality where GOP silence and loyal GOP defenses may lead Trump to believe he can do virtually anything and escape accountability. The GOP is enabling his worst instincts. After all, Democratic rage is meaningless to him, and he relishes conflict with the “fake news”–peddling mainstream media. Because of its current capitulations, the GOP may find itself facing a president truly out of control, willing to do or say anything to escape meaningful scrutiny or accountability.

Years from now, GOP leaders will look back on their careers and describe their actions in these crucial days. They’d like to be able to tell their friends, their families, and future historians that they stood for truth. They’d like to be able to say that they did their part to preserve the American republic and defend its constitution. As the days wear on, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they can stand for truth or they can stand for the president.

Either way, we know Trump won’t stand for them.

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