The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump makes suckers of House Republicans. Again.

Memorabilia of the former president on display at Trump Tower on Thursday in New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
12 min

Be honest: Who among us has not had an extramarital affair with a porn star?

It is the rare person who can truthfully say he or she has not. And that is why I admonish you: Let he who has not lied about using campaign funds to pay hush money cast the first stone!

In the race by MAGA World to circle the wagons around Donald Trump in the Stormy Daniels case, a special prize must go to those who not only attack those investigating the former president but also defend his behavior with the adult-film actress as totally and completely normal.

“Settlements like this, whatever you think of them, are common both among famous people, celebrities and in corporate America,” one of our winners, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, misinformed his viewers. “Paying people not to talk about things, hush money, is ordinary in modern America.”

Erik Wemple: Fox News is worse than you thought

A couple of weeks ago, old text messages came out in which Carlson called Trump “a demonic force, a destroyer” and said “I hate him passionately.” Now he’s back to defending some of Trump’s seediest behavior as utterly routine.

It would never be just Carlson, of course. Elected Republican officials also collectively decided this week that it was in their interest to bring Trump back from the political dead. Once again, Trump used a fabrication to revive his flagging standing. And once again, congressional Republicans fell for it.

Just a week ago, leading Republicans were daring to hope that Trump’s sway was ebbing, as Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence took him on directly. Then Trump changed all that with just one post on his social media site Saturday morning. He announced his expectation that he “WILL BE ARRESTED ON TUESDAY.” He wrote: “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”

In reality, he wasn’t arrested Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or the rest of the week. Maybe he’ll yet be indicted in New York, Georgia or Washington. Maybe he won’t. Regardless, he already notched a significant victory. House Republicans didn’t wait to see whether Trump was speaking the truth about his imminent arrest. They did as he commanded, leaping to his defense — and, in the process, returning him to his previous place of dominance atop the Republican Party. It’s all about Donald Trump — again.

Within just a few hours of Trump’s claim that he was about to be arrested, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced that House Republicans were launching investigations into the “outrageous abuse of power” by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his attempt “to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions.”

On Monday, three House committee chairmen fired off a letter to Bragg summoning him to testify before Congress and demanding that he produce six years’ worth of documents — all because he was “reportedly about to engage” in “the indictment of a former president.” Never mind that Bragg hadn’t (yet) done so.

Things only deteriorated from there.

By the dozen, House lawmakers and their Fox News allies denounced Bragg by calling him “a hired hit man by George Soros” (Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Mo.) or by saying Bragg, who is Black, is “listening to his master, George Soros” (Fox host Rachel Campos-Duffy).

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) called on DeSantis to “stop any sort of extradition of President Trump from the state of Florida.”

Mark Green (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, apparently mistook Bragg’s criminal investigation of state law for a federal case. “Daniel Ortega arrested his opposition in Nicaragua and we called that a horrible thing,” he said. “Mr. Biden, Mr. President, think about that.”

Marc A. Thiessen: An indictment would help Trump. Maybe that’s what Democrats want.

House GOP conference chief Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) likewise called the investigation by a county D.A. “the epitome of the weaponizing of the federal government.”

Inevitably, Republicans found themselves not only denouncing the prosecutor but also defending Trump’s behavior. McCarthy vouched for Trump by saying that the hush money paid to Daniels “was personal money” and that Trump “wasn’t trying to hide” it — claims that are challenged by the available facts. (Fox News host Jesse Watters did McCarthy one better in Trump’s defense, telling viewers: “There’s no proof Trump slept with Stormy. There’s no baby.”)

Even Senate Republicans voiced public concern that their House counterparts had gone too far in their prosecutorial meddling. “I would hope they would stick to the agenda they ran on,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.). He might offer the same advice to Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who called for Bragg to “be put in jail” for unspecified offenses.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) put it best when she told Punchbowl News: “The House is gonna do what the House is gonna do.”

And what it did this week was to put Trump back in unquestioned command of the Republican Party.

Speaker McCarthy defaults — on his promises

The IOUs Kevin McCarthy gave out to win the speakership are now coming due — and it appears the poor guy is going to default.

The California Republican promised right-wing holdouts that he would deliver a budget that balances within 10 years. But he also promised not to touch Social Security and Medicare. Republicans are likewise committed not to allow cuts to defense spending and veterans’ pensions, nor to allow the Trump tax cuts to lapse.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office ran the numbers on those promises at Democrats’ request, and the results are in. To keep all those pledges, Republicans would literally have to eliminate everything — everything — else the government does. No more Homeland Security, no more Border Patrol or FBI, no more Coast Guard, air traffic control or federal funds for education or highways, no agricultural programs, no housing, food or disaster assistance, no cancer research or veterans’ health care, no diplomacy or space exploration, no courts — and no Congress.

Defund the police? This is defund America. Even then, Republicans would still be in the red after 10 years.

Unsurprisingly, McCarthy’s lieutenants are attempting some rapid backtracking. House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) said this week that the 10-year balanced budget is now merely an “aspirational” target — much like my diet. He’s instead touting a separate House GOP proposal to set 2024 spending at 2022 levels, which would require smaller (though still severe) cuts but wouldn’t come close to balancing the budget.

Apparently, the 20 holdouts who almost denied McCarthy the speakership didn’t get the memo, for several of them assembled before the cameras Wednesday and declared they weren’t budging. “We’re going to present a budget that actually balances in the 10-year time frame,” proclaimed Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.). He has said McCarthy’s promise of a 10-year balanced budget was “the whole thing” that led him to drop his opposition to McCarthy’s speakership in January.

Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) hosted Norman and several other anti-McCarthy holdouts, all members of the House Freedom Caucus, in the Senate television studio. There, they proclaimed their determination not to increase the debt ceiling without large spending cuts — even if that means the United States goes into a catastrophic default.

Lee revived the dangerously dubious idea that failing to raise the debt ceiling “is not a default.” “You can blow past the debt-ceiling increase deadline,” Lee said. “Yes, that causes problems … but that is not itself a default.”

The federal debt is causing “more suffrage for the American people,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who presumably meant “suffering.”

And Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) contributed this patriarchal take on Biden’s budget: “Every wife in America would shudder if that was her husband.”

The hard-liners, confused though they were, made clear that they weren’t wavering on the debt ceiling. “This is not the Republican Party of the past that will surrender,” said Rep. Bob Good (Va.). “We made history in January,” he said of the anti-McCarthy holdouts. “You’re going to see us make history again.”

Only this time, it would be the historic collapse of the American economy.

Can anybody here play this game?

There is, theoretically, a deal to be had on the federal debt. It would have to be, as in years past, a “grand bargain” that would cut both domestic and military spending, raise taxes on the wealthy, and reform entitlement programs. But ruling out changes to all but the 15 percent of the federal budget known as nondefense discretionary spending, as House Republicans have promised, is a fool’s errand, destined to fail.

Problem is, this is a caucus full of fools — or at least a caucus of the clueless. They don’t know what they don’t know.

The median tenure for a House Republican right now is just four years. Most don’t know a time before Donald Trump took a wrecking ball to the American political system. McCarthy himself acknowledged this week that “we have to retool and rethink” because of the inexperience: “About half the conference has never served in the majority."

Catherine Rampell: Threatening a U.S. default was bad before. Now, it’s colossally idiotic.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) had a similar observation this week, as members of the House Freedom Caucus blasted what they called a “bailout” of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank — even though the government’s guarantee of deposits prevented a broader banking panic. “It’s complicated and takes a little time for people to understand," he said of his wet-behind-the-ears colleagues.

Their on-the-job training is off to a slow start. Three months into this new House majority, only two minor bills have become law: one rejecting the District of Columbia’s criminal code, and another declassifying what the federal government knows about the pandemic’s origins. As Rep. Blake Moore of Utah, a (rare) moderate Republican, told the Wall Street Journal: “We haven’t passed one of the must-pass bills this year.”

Yet the speaker claims that “we have changed Congress on its head in less than three months.”

In a way, he has changed Congress on its head — by executing a face plant.

Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

This week was the House GOP retreat at a J.W. Marriott in Orlando, an annual gathering in which Republicans talk the same nonsense about a “woke” and “weaponized” government that they do in Washington, only they do it wearing khakis, L.L. Bean fleece vests and Ritz-Carlton logo sweaters.

These gatherings are not called “retreats” anymore (that sounds a bit too Ritz-Carlton) but rather “issues conferences.” This is appropriate, because they’ve got a lot of issues.

Trump has just taken over the party again. The same 20 zealots who denied McCarthy the speakership until he gave them the keys to the car are now about to drive the vehicle off a cliff and into default. Republicans don’t agree on Ukraine, bank bailouts, border legislation or much of anything else.

As if real life weren’t hard enough, GOP leaders decided to spice things up at their retreat issues conference by playing a war game. Politico’s Olivia Beavers reported that they pretended China had invaded Taiwan, McCarthy was president and “committee chairs got a fictional promotion to cabinet secretaries.”

President McCarthy and Secretary of War Jim Jordan? God help us all.

Henry Olsen: Ron DeSantis’s stance on Ukraine is a serious political blunder

Informed by his war gaming, McCarthy waxed eloquent with reporters about his foreign policy views when asked a question about Ukraine. “I have a real concern of the aggression of Russia. I have a more greater concern of this axis of power coming together of China, Russia, North Korea and Iran,” he announced. “I watched this happen in the world another time before I was ever born.”

Without explaining how that was possible, he continued: “I think it is utmost important that Russia lose. I think it’s utmost important that China does not think to go capture Taiwan now that President Xi changed his constitution and is now serving another five terms and believes to go in there. … I think it’s a very responsibility that yes Russia loses in this aggression.”

Well, okay then.

Two days later, McCarthy, asked a question about China, offered some high-level thoughts … on the Second World War.

“What should they have done when they first saw Hitler, Mussolini and Japan getting together?” he asked. “What dependencies did they become weak upon? What aggressions did they look the other way? On building up a military of Hitler even though it went against the Treaty of Versailles. Or the movement in of Czechoslovakia and Austria. Or the movement into Crimea. Or the desire to take Taiwan. So walking through the pandemic thinking about where was America waking up to medical supplies?”

I think I know the name of the war game House Republicans were playing: Mad Libs.