In the run up to the 2012 presidential election, allies of then-President Barack Obama hit on a phrase to sum up his first term: “Osama Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.” The latter, of course, referred to Obama’s bailout of the auto companies, which were cratering amid the brutal financial recession.
Now, as we approach the two-year mark of President Trump’s tenure, it can perhaps be summed up this way:
The case against Trump’s corruption and criminality is getting built, and his border wall isn’t.
The latest developments in two of the biggest ongoing stories right now — the revelations surrounding the hush-money payments allegedly directed by Trump, and the ongoing government-shutdown battle — are all converging on that basic reality as the end point of Trump’s fast-approaching two-year mark.
The Post reports that Trump’s threat to shut down the government to secure the wall funding he craves has created a “nightmare scenario” for congressional Republicans, who feel boxed in by Trump’s demand. In his meeting with Democratic leaders, Trump claimed that a package containing $5 billion in wall funding can pass the GOP-controlled House — an assertion that was supposed to pressure Senate Democrats to agree to help get it through the Senate. Democrats have offered a continuing resolution that would spend $1.3 billion on border security but with restrictions against spending it on Trump’s wall.
Trump’s demands put Republicans in a terrible spot
But as The Post report notes, House Republicans are balking at voting on the $5 billion Trump wants, because it faces certain rejection in the Senate. What’s more, some Republicans don’t even know if it would pass the House. Why? Politico offers this remarkable explanation: “There’s also a concern that the GOP’s moderates, many of whom feel that their losses hinged on Trump, will feel zero need to take a final stand on the wall.”
And why should they? After all, a key reason Trump brought down so many House GOP moderates in the election revolves around his positions on immigration. Since Election Day, some GOP strategists have concluded that Trump’s closing message of xenophobic, nationalist border-fearmongering actually harmed Republicans more than initially thought. They now believe it was a major factor in the GOP wipeout in the suburbs.
This matters going forward. As National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar reports, if suburban alienation from Trump remains this deep, it would likely hamper Republicans badly in the next election cycle, complicating GOP efforts to win back the House and even to hold the White House. Whatever happens in this shutdown standoff — especially if Trump doesn’t get his way, but even if Trump manages to squeeze a bit more funding out of Democrats — nothing remotely resembling the wall that haunts his hallucinations is getting built in the near term, and Trump has now left little doubt that the election hasn’t chastened him even a little bit.
One big question raised about the election’s outcome is whether the shift of white voters toward Democrats — mostly college-educated and suburban whites, but also many noncollege-educated ones — will create the foundations for a coalition that can deliver again for Democrats in 2020. We don’t yet know the answer to that. But the latest wall antics do show Trump is doubling down on the xenophobic obsessions and the impetuous, destructive, falsehood-fueled approach to governing that surely helped drive away all those voters from the GOP — and will likely continue to do so.
Trump’s latest defense is falling apart
Meanwhile, Trump has now offered a new defense against the revelations that he personally directed a criminal conspiracy designed to help elect him president, in the form of those hush-money payments. In a series of tweets, Trump blamed former fixer Michael Cohen for failing him, saying he never directed Cohen to commit a crime and that the payments don’t constitute a campaign finance violation.
In short, Trump ordered the hush-money payments, but he is essentially claiming that Cohen should have somehow carried them out in a manner that wasn’t illegal; in other words, Cohen should have done the deed while insulating him from the legal fallout. Cohen should have “fixed” things for Trump, as fixers do.
But the emerging facts are making that tougher to sustain. Cohen has maintained that the payoffs to women alleging affairs were done “in coordination with and at the direction” of Trump. Now the National Enquirer’s parent company has admitted to paying one of the women to suppress her story, “to prevent it from influencing the election.”
Election-law experts say this revelation of premeditated electoral motive is crucial to bringing a criminal case against Trump for illegal campaign finance violations, though this might not happen until he leaves office. Importantly, in that regard, it also signals that David Pecker, the chief executive of that parent company, a man who had a longtime relationship with Trump, has “turned on the president” and is of “ongoing use to prosecutors.”
We don’t know where all of this will end up, but it is obvious that Trump’s legal travails are deepening. And it’s hard to foresee a scenario in which it doesn’t get harder and harder for Republicans to defend him.
Barring unforeseen events, both of these ongoing narratives appear likely to continue placing Republicans in an increasingly difficult position. If the legal case against Trump advances, standing by him could prove increasingly damaging for Republicans, and Trump may increasingly fall back on his base as his eroding bedrock island of support. That, in turn, may prompt Trump to dig in harder behind his base-pleasing, ethno-nationalist agenda, pulling the party further toward a deeply unpopular set of positions — as we’re now seeing with the histrionics around the wall.
Why would all of this get better before it gets worse?