Donald Trump’s weekend rally in Ohio had no shortage of dark and disturbing moments: He mocked GOP Senate nominee J.D. Vance for “kissing my ass,” called for Singapore-style executions of drug dealers and enjoyed a moment of ritualistic crowd adulation set to what sounded like a QAnon song.
But Trump also delivered a deeply serious message with real-world implications. He fully expects a GOP Congress to use its power to place him outside the reach of any and all investigations and prosecutions, now and into the future.
At bottom, this was an effort to strike a new kind of bargain with Republicans: He delivers them his base, and they reward him by placing him beyond accountability and above the law.
At the rally, Trump uncorked a long, angry rant about the investigations he is facing. These probes are scrutinizing his hoarding of national security secrets, his scheming to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power after his 2020 loss, and his incitement of mob violence against the U.S. government.
What they’ve done, the radical Democrats and the deep state, is a form of political repression unlike anything our nation has ever seen. It’s a disgrace. And J.D., you gotta get it stopped.
J.D., you gotta get it stopped. Trump repeated other versions of this formulation throughout his speech.
These are not idle ravings. They are better understood as a directive, as a declaration of what Trump actually does expect a GOP-controlled Congress to do for him. And you will hear this more as Trump holds rallies for other House and Senate candidates.
In this regard, Republicans will have many options in Congress in 2023, even if they control only the House. Most obviously, a GOP House could use hearings, employed in bad faith under the guise of “oversight,” solely to harass those conducting investigations or potential prosecutions of Trump. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has telegraphed this.
But there’s more. A GOP-controlled House could revive a House rule enabling Republicans to target the salaries of individual federal officials — say, Attorney General Merrick Garland — or groups of federal employees, in an attempt to subvert those investigations and prosecutions.
Such tactics would be thwarted by a Democratic Senate or a presidential veto. But House Republicans could push for government shutdowns to leverage targeted defunding of investigations or prosecutions. They could threaten debt ceiling breaches (and economic disaster) toward that end.
In fact, Republicans are actively preparing for such scenarios. When they call for “defunding the FBI” in retaliation for the search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, they’re clumsily expressing a very real intention to use maximal congressional power against any investigative activity involving Trump. Some Republicans have gone so far as to float specific defunding tactics.
This alone is good reason for Democrats to act legislatively in the lame-duck session to disable the debt limit for good, as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein suggests they do.
So the stakes couldn’t be higher this fall. And on Saturday, Trump’s expectations of this implied pact with a GOP Congress were made explicit.
For instance, at one point, Trump noted that he’s outpolling other Republicans and sneered that without him on the ballot, “Republicans are not doing too well.” Translation: Nice midterm candidates you got there, Republicans. Be a shame if my base didn’t turn out for them.
Meanwhile, Trump cast the 74 million people who voted for him as victims of the investigations against him. The meaning is plain: If Republicans don’t maximize efforts to derail those investigations, he’ll cast them as sellouts, and his base will respond accordingly.
And Trump described investigations into his conduct by declaring that the United States has “weaponized its law enforcement against the opposing political party like never, ever before,” depicting this as a symptom of our “decline.” The implication: Efforts to hold him accountable are a sign we’re slipping into banana republic status.
You want real banana republic stuff? Try Trump’s rampant corruption, his enlisting of the MAGA movement and large swaths of the GOP behind the destruction of democracy, and his efforts to remain unaccountable to the law via tactics such as mob-speak threats of retaliatory street violence. As Shay Khatiri notes at the Bulwark, the bending of the law in the face of strongmen’s threats is an actual hallmark of banana republics.
Keeping the law at bay is exactly what Trump will demand of a GOP Congress. All throughout his presidency, Republicans understood that they were tolerating or running interference for his racism, authoritarianism and corruption in exchange for tax cuts for the rich and the nomination and appointment of right-wing judges. Now, Trump is proposing a new bargain: his base in exchange for absolute impunity.