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‘Where is the line?’: A Joni Ernst town hall questioner sums up the GOP’s Trump dilemma

At an event in Templeton, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) was confronted by a constituent over her response to the whistleblower complaint that sparked impeachment. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)
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Iowa resident Amy Haskins asked Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) an important question about President Trump on Thursday.

“Where is the line?” Haskins asked at a town hall. “When are you guys going to say, ‘Enough,' and stand up and say, ‘I’m not backing any of this?’”

I don’t mean that this was a good question in a moralistic way, as if it’s beyond time for Ernst and her GOP colleagues to take a stand. (People are welcome to make that call for themselves.) I mean it quite literally as “Where is the line?” — because Republicans need to start asking themselves just how far Trump will go if they don’t start setting boundaries.

The past week or so has shown the peril of the GOP’s see-no-evil approach to Trump. After a rough transcript showed the president suggestively talking about how good the United States is to Ukraine before asking Ukraine’s president for investigations that carry political benefits for him, Republicans offered a muted response. A handful — most notably Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), and even Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) to an extent — said the call was bad. But the vast majority of elected GOP officials stayed silent.

The GOP’s reward for that silence was that Trump basically took what he said on that unearthed July 25 call and said it out loud — this time about China. “ … China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump declared Thursday.

Suddenly, the president — who in 2016 insisted that “Russia, if you’re listening” was just a joke — was saying China, if you’re listening with an unambiguous seriousness. China now becomes the third country he has requested politically helpful information from, with no end in sight as to how far he, his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and even Attorney General William P. Barr will take this.

Romney weighed in again, via a statement and pair of Friday tweets, but he was also again lonely in his dissent.

The Republican Party’s gamble on Trump has paid off thus far; that much we can say with plenty of certainty. Yes, they lost the House in 2018 and could well lose the presidency in 2020. But the former is pretty normal, and the latter is to be determined. In the meantime, they have filled two Supreme Court vacancies with conservative jurists, tipping the court 5 to 4 to their side, and stocked lower courts with a huge number of like-minded judges. They have gotten tax cuts passed and regulations rolled back. They have repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate. They have gotten the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem and withdrawals from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. None of these were hugely difficult with the GOP-controlled Congress that Trump inherited, and many of them were done unilaterally by Trump. But they would not have happened without him winning the presidency.

Where House members stand on impeaching Trump

But just because it has paid off thus far does not mean it always will. And the risk with Trump has always been less that he would lose reelection or be something of a middling failure as president, and more that his presidency would (a) inflict irreparable damage to American government/politics and or (b) be the kind of catastrophe that would define the GOP for years to come.

The latter has not happened yet, and it is too early to say that is coming down the pike. But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the possibility, as Trump continues to blatantly violate norms that Republicans once held sacred and feeds the impeachment inquiry that now promises to be the dominant story of his presidency, with plenty of disclosures apparently in the offing.

While Trump has avoided tenure-defining crises like a new armed conflict or a poorly handled mass disaster, there are increasing signs that his China trade war could pull the economy in a downturn — with nobody quite certain how far he will continue to push the standoff with Beijing. As with Trump’s request for foreign investigations, free-market Republicans do not seem to know what to say about a trade war that you just know they despise deep inside.

And given Trump’s unwieldiness and apparently, lack of carefulness, you never know when a scandal is suddenly going to become the scandal. Trump has inoculated himself against that by building a devoted base that has barely blinked at anything he has done, but everybody has a breaking point. The dam did not break on Richard Nixon, either ... until it did.

The threshold for tolerating Trump’s various apostasies might be higher than it ever was for Nixon, given his base and given our current polarization. But at the least he is doing things that are putting Republicans in a very uncomfortable spot. And for what: Feeding unfounded conspiracy theories about a Democratic presidential candidate who finished fifth in the last presidential primary he ran in?

Republicans have never really been able to stop Trump from being Trump, and they have often paid a price when they have tried. That is a big reason they do not really try anymore. They have been stung too many times when they thought this was their time to abandon ship. They might have even convinced themselves he knows something they do not about how all this works.

But there has to be a line somewhere. It may not be where the Amy Haskins’s of the world wants it to be, but it is something the likes of Ernst and her colleagues should probably start thinking pretty hard about, given the events of the past two weeks.