There’s a pattern that President Trump has followed many times when accused of wrongdoing. First, deny it. Then, when irrefutable proof emerges that you did it and your denials were lies, insist that there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. That’s how he handled the story of his hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, the fact that he was pursuing a deal to build a tower in Moscow while running for president (“There would have been nothing wrong if I did do it”), and his campaign’s attempt to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer (“totally legal and done all the time in politics”).
We’re seeing it anew. On Sunday, Rudolph W. Giuliani went on television and insisted: “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians." This was in a context where that “information” was the result of an organized attack allegedly by Russian intelligence agents that included hacking into Democratic email systems.
That’s right: The president’s lawyer just issued an invitation to any foreign adversary — Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, the Islamic State, anyone — that if they decide that one American presidential candidate would be more favorable to their interests, they should go ahead and hack, spy or use whatever other kind of means they want to employ to sway the election, and their efforts will be welcomed.
That alone is shocking and despicable. But it’s just one part of a larger Republican argument, one that says not that Trump did some unfortunate things but nothing that would justify prosecution or impeachment, but instead that he is completely blameless because there is no such thing as unethical conduct if committed by Trump.
As we grapple with the fallout from the Mueller report, this is not only the position Trump and his aides are taking. It’s the position of the entire Republican Party, not just for the specific misconduct detailed in the report but for the whole of the Trump presidency. The GOP has embraced utter and complete moral nihilism.
A comparison with President Bill Clinton’s impeachment might be helpful to clarify just how remarkable the current Republican approach is. At that time, it was nearly impossible to find a Democrat who would defend everything Clinton had done — conduct which, to be clear, was trivial next to Trump’s misdeeds. Every Democrat said essentially the same thing about Clinton’s actions: Yes, it was sleazy, but it doesn’t merit impeachment and removal. That was the conclusion the public ultimately made as well.
Republicans could if they chose take a similar stance right now. They could say that of course it was inappropriate for Trump’s son, son-in-law and campaign chairman to eagerly welcome someone who they thought would offer up dirt on Clinton courtesy of the Kremlin. Of course Trump shouldn’t have pressured his underlings over and over to lie to the public. Of course he shouldn’t have pressured intelligence officials to help him undermine the FBI investigation into Russia. But in the end, they could argue, all that didn’t add up to much, and now we should just move on.
But with just a couple of exceptions, Republicans aren’t saying anything like that. They aren’t arguing that Trump’s behavior was reprehensible but doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. Instead, their position is that Trump didn’t do a single thing wrong.
Inviting a hostile foreign power to hack his opponent’s emails? He was kidding around! Accepting the help of that hostile power for his campaign? What any candidate would do! Seeking a multimillion-dollar deal in a hostile foreign country while running for president and lying about it to the public? Just a shrewd businessman! Firing the FBI director to shut down an investigation into his campaign, and admitting it on TV? His absolute right as president! Trying in multiple different ways to obstruct justice? He was just fighting back against a deep-state conspiracy!
Try, if you can, to recall all the unease among Republicans that greeted Trump’s capture of their party’s presidential nomination in 2016. Could they tolerate being led by such a noxious character, someone who ran scams conning struggling people out of their life savings, who abuses small businesspeople, who bragged about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, who is an obvious bigot, who lies so often that you wouldn’t trust him to tell you that Thursday follows Wednesday? What price will we pay for being led by such a man, they asked themselves.
But they quickly got over it. Perhaps nowhere was the rapid transformation more evident than among white conservative evangelicals, who at one time persuaded everyone to refer to them as “values voters,” as though they were the only ones in possession of “values” while everyone else just has opinions. Their enthusiastic embrace of the most amoral president in modern history has proved how laughable that appellation always was, which is why no one uses it anymore. Three years after rushing to his side, they have shown that if you can convince yourself that God’s will is being worked through Trump, no sin is too repulsive to excuse and no abuse of power too blatant to justify.
But it's not just the evangelicals; it applies to the entire Republican Party. There are no more statements about how "troubled" they are by his behavior, no more attempts to distance themselves from his repugnant character, no more effort to prove that they retain something resembling integrity. They will defend anything, because that is what Trump demands.
This is the logical and perhaps inevitable endpoint of the decision they made in 2016. Republicans chose as their leader the single most loathsome figure in American public life, a man possessed of not a single human virtue. He would inevitably call them to descend to the moral void where he resides. And when they did — enthusiastically — they showed us not just who he is, but who they are as well.