And we can break down the decisions congressional Republicans have come to so far in eight major categories, based on the actions they're taking (or not), and the rationale they're offering for those actions. So let's do it. Less than a week after Trump's campaign threatened to come crashing down, perhaps taking down-ballot Republicans with it, here's what near-anarchy among Hill Republicans looks like:
1. The “Get Out Now"-ers
I cannot and will not support Donald Trump for president. He has forfeited the right to be our party’s nominee.— Lisa Murkowski (@LisaForSenate) October 8, 2016
What Trump said in 2005 makes him unfit to president, and he should step aside. That's the gist of this most hard-line group. But other than calling on Trump to step down, there's not much they can do to make it happen.
Who's in it: Lawmakers who had already decided they weren't going to vote for Trump — Sens. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.) — dominate this group, along with handful of others who decided this tape was a dealbreaker, like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
Not everyone who's in this category stays in this category. The Senate's No. 3 Republican tweeted Saturday that Trump should go, but then indicated Tuesday he'd vote for him. (See category 6.)
2. The “I'm out"-ers
Lawmakers in this category followed Ryan's actions to the logical conclusion by announcing they're not supporting Trump.
Who's in it: This group's members are best represented by vulnerable senate Republican candidates, four of whom bailed on Trump the day after the world recoiled hearing video of him bragging about his sexual aggression to women. (Kirk said back in June he wouldn't be voting for Trump.)
These lawmakers calculated that Trump is so toxic, it's just not worth trying to defend him, especially when polls show women are no fans of Trump.
Of all the categories, this may be the one that's most representative of a no-win situation, as GOP Senate candidates Rep. Joseph J. Heck (Nev.), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) are finding out. Ditching Trump could leave them a sort of political purgatory where their base is mad at them for leaving the nominee but swing voters are skeptical they ever really left.
3. The “At least he's not Hillary"-ers
Republicans in this category analyzed the same situation as the lawmakers in the “I'm out” crowd and made the exact opposition decision: to stay with Trump. And they justify it by saying something like what Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said:
“I disagree with him on many things, but I disagree with his opponent on virtually everything. I wish we had better choices for president. But I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next President. And therefore my position has not changed.”
Who's in it: Any Republican who calculated they'll lose more than their presidential nominee if they ditch Trump.
4. The “Clinton already won"-ers
Rather than go on the record about where they stand on Trump, some Republicans are looking for an escape hatch to avoid his campaign should it collapse: Campaign as if Clinton has already won the election.
It requires them to admit they think their nominee is going to lose. But Republican polling found that in 18 competitive House races, promising to be a check and balance to a President Clinton could actually be a winning argument, since Clinton's not popular in these districts either.
Who's in it: Republicans in swing districts. By Tuesday, two House candidates in swingy districts in Minnesota and New York had launched ads using the “checks and balance” language. Another, Rep. Mia Love (Utah), said the magic words “check and balance” in her debate.
5. The “Loyal First"-ers
Trump is our nominee, and love him or abhor him, we can't abandon him now. That's pretty much how the thinking goes in this category.
Who's in it: Republicans in solidly Republican districts are making this argument. And that makes sense. Abandoning your presidential nominee is politically risky, so why take the risk if you don't have to?
Here's Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), the chair of Trump's Nevada committee, in a letter to Republicans announcing he's still supporting Trump: “I will follow my Democrat colleagues’ example, and not cannibalize my nominee because he has said and done some regrettable things.
And here's Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) speaking recently on Fox Business Network: “You don’t go after somebody who is, as Ronald Reagan would say, your 80 percent friend. What you do is stand with them.”
6. The Clarifiers
On Saturday, they wanted him gone. By Tuesday or Wednesday, there are at least four congressional Republicans — as Daniel Nichanian with Daily Kos Elections painstakingly categorizes — are back to supporting him. Kind of. It gets murky in this category.
Who's in it: Two red-state senators (including Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the highest-ranking Senate Republican to demand Trump leave the ticket), a vulnerable New Jersey lawmaker, Rep. Scott Garrett, and an Alabama lawmaker, Rep. Bradley Byrne.
7. The “Tape Wasn't A Big Deal"-ers
Now we're firmly in Trump-defender territory.
Who's in it: Hardcore Trump supporters like Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), one of Trump's first Capitol Hill backers. He's standing by Trump in part because he thinks what Trump said 11 years ago shouldn't factor into what kind of president he'd be today. Here's what Hunter told The Fix in an interview:
“I think it's totally unfair, you can take anybody's comments off the record from a decade or more prior and pull them up at your convenience. And I was in the Marine Corps, and I've been to war three times. If you had recorded the stuff my Marines and I were talking about, after not seeing a woman for seven months — but let's just leave it at that. And so I find this completely unfair.”
Also, Ben Carson.
As evidenced by how many categories there are on this list, there is no perfect solution for Republicans to deal with Trump's fallout. So some are keeping their lips zipped.
Who's in it: No one knows that better than Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-Ky.) who, as Politico's Rachel Bade and Burgess Everett point out, has managed to refrain from saying publicly what he thinks should happen to Trump. (McConnell, like Ryan, technically endorsed Trump, but it's clear from the little McConnell has said about Trump that he's not a fan.)
McConnell can't afford to make the wrong choice: He's trying desperately to save his Senate majority, and Trump isn't making it easy.