In other words, it was a typical morning in the Trump era. As Republicans buckle down to defend him in the next phase of the impeachment process, they have made clear that there is almost no malfeasance on Trump’s part they will not countenance and no betrayal of his office they will not excuse.
What makes their own moral complicity even more profound is that this didn’t come as some sort of surprise.
It’s not as though Republicans suddenly found themselves with a president who turned out to be mentally unbalanced, as petty and vindictive as a 5-year-old, and more corrupt than anyone who has occupied his office. They knew exactly who he was.
Not only that, a great many of them tried to warn the country and their own party that if Trump became president, it would be a disaster.
They were right. Yet today, the best that can be said of nearly any of them (with an exception or two) is that they try to remain silent in the face of Trump’s misdeeds, ducking into elevators to avoid answering questions about the president they support. And some have become his most passionate defenders, eagerly explaining why the very pathologies they warned about are in fact strengths, and that the man they described as a monster is in fact a hero.
Let’s remind ourselves of what they said back in 2016 when Trump was in the process of seizing control of their party:
- “He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot. He doesn’t represent my party. He doesn’t represent the values that the men and women in uniform are fighting for,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham in December 2015. In another interview, Graham said, “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.” Graham has now become one of Trump’s most ardent advocates.
- “This man is a pathological liar, he doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies,” said Sen. Ted Cruz in May 2016, adding that “the man is utterly immoral” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” Cruz now insists that Trump did nothing illegal with regard to Ukraine and says of the impeachment inquiry, “Washington is always a circus, but this is three rings with all the clowns and it’s nuts right now.”
- “Yes, I am supporting Donald Trump, but I’m doing so despite the fact that I think he’s a terrible human being,” said Mick Mulvaney in November 2016. He now serves as Trump’s acting chief of staff.
- “He offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued,” said Rick Perry in July 2015. “Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded.” Perry became Trump’s secretary of energy, then was tasked to implement Trump’s corrupt Ukraine policy as one of the “three amigos.”
- “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” said then-governor Nikki Haley in February 2016 in a reference to Trump, adding that he was “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” Haley became his ambassador to the U.N., and now says of Trump that he’s “truthful” and "great to work with.”
There are conservative pundits and activists who flip-flopped on Trump as well. To take just one vivid example, longtime right-wing activist L. Brent Bozell III wrote in early 2016, “Trump might be the greatest charlatan of all.” But in a recent book entitled “Unmasked: Big Media’s War Against Trump,” Bozell writes about finally meeting the great man: “His intelligence was clearly evident. But so was there a thoroughly unexpected — dare I say it? — humility and graciousness. … Trump was about the most charismatic man I ever met.”
To be sure, a few Republican elected officials called out Trump and have maintained their criticism, most notably Sen. Mitt Romney, who gave a speech in 2016 in which he said, “Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” But what’s notable is not so much the fact that so many went from Trump critic to Trump advocate. Some did it out of ambition and some did it out of self-preservation; they understand that in Trump’s Republican Party there is no longer any room for principle.
No, what jumps out when you look back at the comments from 2016 is how right the Republican critics who would later line up behind Trump were about him. They proclaimed him immoral, a pathological liar, a narcissist and a demagogue. They warned that his fanboy obsequiousness toward Vladimir Putin would warp American foreign policy. They called him ignorant, unserious, and unworthy of the Oval Office. All of that has been proven beyond any doubt.
And when they attacked Trump, they were making an implicit argument about themselves. I am not like him, they wanted us to believe. If I were given power, I would wield it with honor, dignity, and integrity.
Trump then gave them a test, a chance to demonstrate whether that was true. And they failed.