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Opinion As Trump presides over an epic disaster, Senate Republicans see little to criticize

Arizona Sen. Martha McSally. (SHAWN THEW/EPA)
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Deaths linked to coronavirus in the United States have soared past 70,000, and there are over 1.2 million confirmed cases. In more than half of states that are lifting restrictions, “case counts are trending upward, positive test results are rising, or both.” More than 33 million people have filed jobless claims.

Meanwhile, President Trump is now preposterously insisting that “we have to open up” and that “testing is “overrated,” even though experts say we desperately need far more testing to “open up” safely. Trump has no intention of mounting a serious federal effort to make that happen, though this could put untold lives at risk.

But for Senate Republicans, Trump is doing a terrific job.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Politico reports that numerous Senate Republicans have decided that they see more political upside in vouching for the president’s handling of the pandemic than criticizing it. Behold these remarkable quotes:

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), whose race could easily decide the Senate, said Americans won’t necessarily be voting with today’s drumbeat of 2,000 deaths a day and endless quarantines in mind. He predicted by August everything will look different.
“We’ll be doing millions and millions of tests, we’ll do the antibody tests, we’ll have good reports, I think, on the beginnings of economic progress,” Tillis said. “And I think all those things will benefit the president and they’ll benefit me.”
Ask a Republican about Trump’s response to the outbreak, instead of edging away from the president, you’ll likely hear cheers that he shut down travel to China early and praise for his focus on the disease.
“Generally, I feel [Trump’s] done a very good job,” said GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, who faces a tough reelection race in Iowa. “He was right on it from day one prohibiting travel from certain countries and so forth. I think it was the right thing to do.”
“He exhibited tremendous leadership in this whole process, looking to people who are the experts and acting accordingly,” added Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), whose state is constantly eyed by Democrats as fertile ground.

Other very vulnerable Senate Republicans have sounded similar tones. Sen. Martha McSally (Ariz.) has enthused that Trump has “been cheerleading for Americans and Arizonans,” as if this is something Trump deserves great credit for.

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Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.) claimed: “The president prepared for the worst, and thankfully we’re starting to see declines in infection rates and now it’s time to start safely opening up the economy.” No, Trump did not prepare for the worst. He abdicated on those preparations for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.) has been only a bit more circumspect, claiming, “It’s important to not look and try to provide some kind of a grade,” and that “I think what’s important is trying to do better and better every day.” (Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, by contrast, has criticized Trump’s “uneven” handling of the crisis.)

The back story here is that an internal GOP memo advising GOP candidates to avoid defending Trump’s handling of the pandemic — and pivot to blaming China instead — recently leaked, causing an intraparty explosion.

The Mad King cannot tolerate such criticism. So a top Trump aide informed a senior adviser with the National Republican Senatorial Committee that any GOP Senate candidate who follows such heretical advice — and declines to defend Trump’s handling of the pandemic — cannot count on the Trump campaign’s backing, and risks losing GOP voter support.

Indeed, the Senate GOP campaign arm frantically rushed out a clarification: “There is no daylight between the NRSC and President Trump.”

No daylight at all?

Yes, typical party pressures generally make it hard for officials to criticize a president of the same party. But this is striking. Is there really no room at all in this party that might allow Republicans to gently suggest that there are ways Trump could be handling this significantly better than he is?

Okay, maybe some Senate Republicans might criticize this or that aspect of the response, or call for this or that to be done differently. But is it really the GOP position that the federal government — or at least the executive branch — couldn’t be doing a significantly better job handling the worst public health emergency in modern times than it is currently doing?

If the answer to that question is no, as it appears to be, the reason for this was hinted at in this week’s CNBC poll. It found that only 39 percent of Republicans in battleground states now have at least “somewhat” serious concerns about coronavirus, a remarkable drop from 55 percent last month. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans say things are starting to get better.

As Trump has lurched from his temporary “wartime president” pantomime of marshaling a serious response into treating it as if the problem has been so secured in hand that it’s time to move on, Republican voters appear to be agreeing that things are improving.

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What’s remarkable about all this is that vulnerable Senate Republicans are ensnared in a trap that Trump has created. They plainly believe their best hope is that coronavirus will get under control, or at least that Trump and Republicans will successfully prod people to resume their economic lives, leading to an illusion of resumed normalcy that will improve the political climate.

Yet, by refusing to stand up the robust federal response that’s needed right now, Trump is making those things less likely to happen. And because those Republicans seem to have calculated that this must not be seriously criticized, they are tied tightly to that gamble as well.

By trying to reassign seats in the White House briefing room, the Trump administration is attempting to stifle real journalism, says media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Trump changed the GOP. He didn’t change America.

Eugene Robinson: Democrats always appeal to the mind. Now they must go for the gut.

Michael Gerson: Trump’s politicized health policy will have dreadful consequences

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