In mid-December, I predicted that Congressional Republicans would continue to put up with the embarrassment of Donald Trump until they got the two things they cared about most: a pro-business, anti-regulation Supreme Court pick and another massive tax cut for their super-rich benefactors. Faced with daily reminders of Trump’s abject unfitness for the Presidency, they appeared to be hanging on to the 2012 guidance of their spiritual leader Grover Nordquist:
“We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.”
I also observed in that post that:
“if Trump’s unforced errors, self-aggrandizement, or delusions of grandeur get too far out of hand, such that he becomes an electoral liability to the Republican Party, sleepy Jason Chaffetz may once again wake up to his investigative duties and start easing Trump down a different path, toward impeachment. From the perspective of the Republican Establishment, the crazier Donald Trump becomes, the better a malleable loyalist like President Mike Pence looks.”
As of yesterday, we may be seeing a shift in this strategy. Although I also predicted shortly after the election that Trump’s Presidency would be “characterized by ongoing upheavals, scandals and firings,” and that he would “lack the skills or temperament to deliver on any but the simplest policy goals and campaign promises,” my powers of prognostication failed to anticipate just how quickly his Administration would descend into scandal and crisis of Nixonian proportions.
After a mere 25 days, Congressional Republicans are now witnessing something quite different from Nordquist’s monkey with a pen. Their monkey is today more like King Kong, perched atop the Empire State Building and swatting ineffectively at the buzzing airplanes of the Press, the public, the Democratic Party and, it would appear, the rest of the world (not counting Russia, of course).
Thanks to Trump’s war on the intelligence community, the evidence behind his campaign’s collusion with Russian intelligence during the Presidential campaign is pouring out at a torrential rate. It is now in the public record that Trump’s surrogates were “in constant touch” with the Russians throughout the campaign and, more importantly, lied about it consistently, and are continuing to lie about it today.
A few critical dots remain to be connected, but the circumstantial evidence revealed to date is pretty compelling. If you have (A) a foreign government actively intervening in an American election to favor the campaign of one candidate and (B) “repeated contacts” between that campaign and intelligence operatives of that foreign government, it is pretty hard to imagine what the hell else they might have been talking about.
The exposure of Michael Flynn’s sanctions talk with the Russian Ambassador to the US was only the tip of this iceberg, but it led to an inescapable conclusion: if Flynn’s lies to VP Pence and others had not been leaked to the Press, the President would have been perfectly happy to keep Pence in the dark and allow Flynn to continue as the highest national security officer in his Administration. And if he was willing to do that, even after being warned that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail due to his numerous Russian contacts prior to the election, it is hard to imagine any explanation other than one: the President of the United States was not worried about blackmail because he was fully aware of Flynn’s Russian connections during the campaign and was complicit in covering them up.
This situation is now only going to get worse as Donald Trump launches the only approach his “very good brain” can conjure up when he gets caught in a lie: unsupportable denials, obvious diversions, and raging threats against the messengers of the bad news. This will simply feed the fire, further compromise the Administration, and — given the unprecedented stakes of this confrontation — essentially grind the Executive and Legislative branches of government to a standstill.
Twenty-five days into the Trump regime, we are about to enter a replay of the last two years of the Nixon regime. Nothing is going to get done as the nation becomes transfixed by an epic Presidential scandal that may well eclipse Watergate as the most profound betrayal of democratic institutions in US history.
Yesterday David Frum, always a reliable and thoughtful reader of the conservative tea leaves, wrote a piece in The Atlantic titled “What Happens Next Is Up to Republicans” in which he asked Congressional Republicans to reconsider the damage being inflicted by the Trump Presidency and the costs it is inflicting on the conservative agenda:
“Without presidential leadership—and with the visible and traditional disagreements between House members who mostly hold safe seats, and senators vulnerable to state-wide electorates—it’s hard to see how anything gets done in the next session. Congressional Republicans are now at risk of wasting this rare chance, risking an all-Republican government accomplishing nothing beside Trump’s self-aggrandizement and corrosion of constitutional government. That will suit Donald Trump fine. It can hardly suit Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.”
As often happens, thanks to the mysterious ether that surrounds Republican leaders and enables instant mind-meld among them, Frum’s concerns have been echoing in a new round of talking-points circulating among Congressional Republicans: let’s get to the bottom of this Russia thing so we can get back to passing our legislative agenda. In the words of Senator Bob Corker (R-TN):
“We’re talking about this and not something else. We need to figure out a way to get it behind us. … We’ve got important things to do for our country right now, and they’re expecting us as a country — not as Republicans, not as Democrats, as a country — to move ahead and solve much of what is ailing us and build on the things that we’ve got good foundations for. But this is disruptive.”
Indeed, the theme of GOP dreams thwarted by a dysfunctional Trump Administration was highlighted in a New York Times lead article this morning:
“a largely policy-free campaign left the Trump administration flat-footed from the start, and questions about his campaign’s communications with Russia and other distractions have prevented serious lawmaking discussions.
“Some Republicans are frustrated that even social policy bills that have long been mainstays in the House, but died in the Senate or were vetoed by Mr. Obama, are not moving forward.”
So it is perhaps no coincidence that now, all of a sudden, leading Republicans are jumping on the investigation bandwagon. In addition to stalwarts John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Senators Roy Blunt, John Cornyn, and Richard Burr are all calling for accelerated investigations of the unfolding scandal.
Are we seeing a fundamental shift in Congressional Republicans’ willingness to tolerate Donald Trump? Many signs point to “yes.” Trump has managed to be such a toxic influence on the American political system that he is now failing Nordquist’s minimal qualifying test for a Republican President — providing a hand to sign laws they put in front of him. Indeed, he has now managed to create such an uproar across the land that everything else in government has ground to a halt.
Could we expect anything less from America’s Narcissist-in-Chief? Republicans may still be laboring under one wishful thought: that investigations will exonerate Trump and allow them to move on with their agenda. But that hope is diminishing more and more every day. Trump will not go down without a fight, and there is a very good chance he will take the whole Republican Party down with him. Karma, anyone?