What would it take for Republican politicians to finally turn on, or even gently criticize, the current president?
For context, here’s an example of righteous fury one Republican congressman levied at President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
“There’s no way any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday,” said Peter King (R-N.Y.).
The unforgivable sin that triggered this rebuke?
Wearing a tan suit.
Other unacceptable scandals of the Obama administration vociferously condemned by right-wing politicians and pundits: asking for mustard on a burger, putting his feet on his desk, standing under an umbrella held by a Marine, playing too much golf.
By contrast, here are some of the actions Trump has undertaken that have not caused most Republican officials to abandon their support, or even offer especially sharp criticism (if any criticism at all): multiple attempts at a Muslim ban, boasts about sexual assault, mocking people with disabilities, attacking a Gold Star family, making baseless claims that Obama wiretapped him, making baseless claims that 3 million people voted illegally, comparing the intelligence community to Nazis, firing the FBI director investigating his campaign, betraying a critical ally by sharing highly classified information with the Russians.
For comparison here’s tan-suit-loathing King’s reaction to Trump’s firing of FBI Director Jim B. Comey: “I can see why the President feels [Comey] came across as self-serving.” Dozens more Republican legislators said the action was appropriate, correct, even inevitable.
On the sharing of highly classified intel with the Russians, some Republican politicians have requested briefings or transcripts, but many have remained mum. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) today told reporters he did not have concerns about Trump’s ability to properly handle classified information and that he had not lost confidence in Trump. McConnell instead merely bemoaned that the “drama” from the White House was distracting from the Republican agenda.
So what would convince Republicans to stop circling the wagons? What would lead them to declare that some Trumpian transgression was comparable to, say, the horrors of a tan suit?
Maybe he’d have to shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. But more likely, one of these conditions would also have to be met:
1. Trump’s approval rating plumbs depths so low, and association with him becomes so toxic, that he begins to drag down the rest of his party and costs Republicans elections around the country.
Trump’s approval rating is indeed very low — 38 percent according to Gallup, a record low for this early in a presidency. But still perhaps not quite low enough for most of his fellow Republicans to feel they’re in imminent danger. Yet. Sources have told me that some in House leadership have begun to worry about holding onto their majority in 2018, something that was already a risk even without the unique wild card that is Trump (given the track records for previous midterms immediately following the election of a new president).
As my colleague David Weigel writes, the outcomes of three upcoming special elections for congressional seats may well serve as a bellwether. If Republicans are able to pull those off, that may embolden them to stand by their man.
2. Tax cuts and/or other major items on the Republican agenda are finally achieved, or have been decisively proven to be hopeless.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) appears to be holding his nose because he believes his great dream of tax cuts for the rich, and the dismantling of the social welfare state for the non-rich, is finally within reach. Turning on the president when the Republicans finally have unified control of government would cause even more chaos and jeopardize those dreams.
However, the drawn-out fight over repealing Obamacare — which is a key step in achieving massive tax cuts, thanks to arcane Senate budget rules — is already jeopardizing those dreams. So is the Trump administration’s obvious confusion about what it wants to do on either health care or taxes. Which could either mean that congressional Republicans give up and decide it’s time to cut bait (unlikely), or that they keep indefinitely delaying and delaying and delaying their decision to dump Trump, regardless of the mounting threat he presents to national security (more likely).
That latter outcome frightens me greatly. And it’s why, despite my public contempt for the Republican tax and health-care plans, there’s a teeny part of me that almost wants some part of this contemptible agenda to be passed and in the rearview mirror so Ryan et al. will finally feel liberated enough to criticize Trump — maybe even move to remove him from office.
But probably I’m too optimistic about the prospects for spine regeneration.
3. Republicans grow consciences and decide to put country before party, or even fiscal agenda, because they realize this president should not have continued access to the nuclear codes.
Yeah, that ship has probably sailed.