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Jason Chaffetz’s passivity on Trump exemplifies Republican rationalizations

Rep. Jason Chaffetz says on Oct. 8 that he can no longer endorse Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump following Trump’s lewd remarks about women. (Fox 13)

It’s important to remember what was happening in the presidential race at the moment that The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold broke the story about that “Access Hollywood” tape.

It was Oct. 8, shortly after the first presidential debate that everyone except Donald Trump agreed was a resounding victory for Hillary Clinton. Trump had edged closer in the polls, but, with only a month until the election, he was falling behind again — quickly. On Sept. 15, he was down 1.5 points in the polls. By Oct. 1, it was 2.5. By the eighth of the month, 4.6.

For all of the talk about how bad the polls were last year, on the national level they were broadly accurate. On Nov. 7, the RealClearPolitics average gave Clinton a 3.2-point advantage. She won the national vote by 2.1 points. Those polls showed a real trend: Support for Trump falling.

It was at that moment that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) had seen enough. The chairman of the House Oversight Committee and a member of Congress from a deep-red state that was deeply ambivalent about Trump, he told reporters that he could no longer support Trump.

“I’m out,” he said to a local news affiliate the day the vulgar comments from Trump were made public. “I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.”

But then something weird happened. Trump’s collapse halted and he started to regain ground against Clinton. The widest lead Clinton enjoyed in the last month was Oct. 17, when she was up 7.1 points. By Oct. 26, Trump had narrowed the gap to 5.6. Chaffetz suddenly altered his position, tweeting that he wouldn’t “defend or endorse” Trump, but that he would vote for him. Two days later, Chaffetz, in his Oversight role, got a letter from FBI Director James B. Comey saying that the FBI was looking at new emails in its investigation of Clinton’s private server. By Nov. 1, the race was a dead heat once again.

Trump still wasn’t expected to win, but, lo and behold, he did. The media was saturated with reflections on the rock-solid base of support that had powered Trump’s surprise victory, and suddenly the Republicans had an unobstructed path to pass whatever policy they wanted. Nothing fuels political superstition like a victory — especially a surprise victory — so elected Republicans who had expressed skepticism about Trump when he was wavering were quick to rally to his side. Chaffetz among them.

The day Trump was sworn in as president, Chaffetz posted something remarkable to Instagram.

Next to an image from Fox News showing him shaking hands with Clinton, he wrote, “So pleased she is not the President. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.”

“The investigation continues” — referring, of course, to the investigation of Clinton’s email server.

On Tuesday, Chaffetz was asked whether he would similarly call for an investigation into the events that led to the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, who resigned this week after it became publicly known that the Justice Department had informed the administration of the nature of calls he’d held with a Russian official.

Chaffetz declined.

“I think that situation has taken care of itself. I know that the Intel committee is looking into the hacking issue,” he told reporters. “I think he did the right thing stepping down.”

Update: Credit where due, Chaffetz has asked the White House for information about security at Mar-a-Lago, after questions arose on Monday.

Chaffetz’s disinterest in pressing further on Flynn was echoed by other Republican leaders, including the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said that more information was needed before an investigation — which would unearth more information — should begin.

Nunes and Ryan both supported investigations into Clinton, of course — at least before Election Day.

A year ago, in the heat of the Republican primaries, we were beginning to see a fissure in the party between those who supported Donald Trump and those who supported other candidates. That fissure lasted almost until Election Day, with those two groups holding different views of Trump’s candidacy until the very end. A key reason Trump won is that Republicans skeptical of Trump — like Chaffetz and Ryan — eventually came back on board, preferring him to another President Clinton.

Since Trump took office, that opposition from within his own party has vanished on Capitol Hill. While Cabinet votes are rarely moments during which senators break with the president of their own party, this year’s Cabinet considerations have received much more negative reception than in years past. But only three times have Republican senators cast votes in opposition to his nominees: Twice against Betsy DeVos and one vote against Trump’s CIA nominee.

Why? Quite simply because Republicans are broadly supportive of Trump. Trump’s approval ratings are lower in Gallup’s measurement than any other president at this point in his tenure — but that’s thanks mostly to disapproval from Democrats and independents. In its most recently weekly average, the polling firm found that only 41 percent of Americans approve of the job that Trump is doing — but 87 percent of Republicans do. (By contrast, only 11 percent of Democrats say the same.)

There is little political incentive at the moment to take a stand in opposition to Trump, regardless of what he does or what questions he may prompt. Cook Political Report compiles an index of how partisan House districts are. Chaffetz’s is Republican plus-28 — a strongly Republican district. Nunes’s is plus-10 and Ryan’s plus-3. Ryan’s is the most narrowly pro-Republican, but he won reelection last year by 35 points. Even when Chaffetz was confronted by angry constituents at a town hall meeting in Utah, he brushed them off, recognizing that a few hundred people wouldn’t put his seat at risk (and claiming, ridiculously, that the attendees were paid to be there).

There was one Republican senator who called for an investigation into the Flynn situation. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) demanded an “exhaustive” look at what happened, so that “nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned.”

Blunt was also reelected in 2016, but much more narrowly, edging out Jason Kander by about three points in a state Trump won by 19.

Nothing makes an elected official feel more comfortable with what they’re doing than feeling like it will help them win their next election. Trump’s surprise win soothed a lot of frazzled nerves. In other words, what’s driven responses to Trump since he declared his candidacy was the extent to which people thought that there would be a political cost for challenging him.

At this moment, the pendulum for many prominent Republicans has clearly swung back to “no.”

Update: That vote against Trump’s CIA pick came from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In a radio interview reported by CNN, Paul said that an investigation into the Flynn situation might be “excessive.”

His rationale was interesting. “I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party,” he said. “We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.”