The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We’re not going to turn on our own’: Republicans rally around Trump as threats mount

President Trump had a tough week, but you wouldn’t be able tell from talking to his audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Rhonda Colvin, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

When President Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen testified last week that his former boss was a “racist” and “con man” who routinely skirts the law, Republicans showed little interest in following up on his claims.

They shrugged when Trump called murderous dictator Kim Jong Un a “real leader” and once again elevated the North Korean leader on the world stage.

And faced with a vote on Trump’s legally contested declaration of a national emergency at the Mexican border, just 13 of 197 House Republicans opposed him.

Acquiescence to Trump is now the defining trait of the Republican Party more than two years into his presidency — overwhelming and at times erasing principles that conservatives viewed as the foundation of the party for more than a half century.

Trump’s ownership of the GOP was on vivid display again Saturday, when the president appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, an annual gathering that has transformed into a raucous celebration of Trump, featuring propaganda-style art and a speaker who declared that the president was “chosen by God.”

Standing before an exuberant crowd chanting “Trump!” and “U-S-A,” Trump spent two hours railing against the “failed ruling class,” calling the special counsel’s Russia investigation “bullshit” and portraying his election as a major moment in global history.

“We are reversing decades of blunders and betrayals,” Trump declared at one point, before asserting that he was only joking in 2016 when he asked Russia to release Hillary Clinton’s private emails.

“Lock her up! Lock her up!” CPAC attendees roared at the mention of the former Democratic presidential nominee.

In interviews over the past week, Republicans on Capitol Hill offered an array of reasons for their unflinching loyalty to Trump as the 2020 campaign begins to take shape: a deep-seated fear of his pull with their supporters in primary races; fraying consensus about conservatism as nationalism takes hold of the party; and shared partisan disdain for Trump’s perceived enemies in the news media and the Democratic Party.

“We’re not going to turn on our own and make the Democrats happy,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who is up for reelection in 2020. “We don’t see any benefit in fracturing, but we do see a lot to lose.”

Republicans say Trump’s overhaul of the federal judiciary and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices, along with the passage of the GOP’s sweeping tax law, have helped bind the party together through bouts of political turbulence — from the loss of their House majority to the longest government shutdown in history to the torrent of developments related to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s ongoing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

All of it has left Trump firmly in control. Most potential 2020 primary challengers sit on the sidelines as the GOP establishment rallies around Trump’s reelection. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who once gave Trump a jar of hand-selected Starbursts candy as a gift, is a Trump booster and confidant. Former GOP foes in the Senate, such as Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), flatter him and are regulars at his golf courses.

“They fetishize this nonconservative in the Oval because it’s tribal,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP strategist and Trump critic. “It’s us versus them, we’re right and they’re evil, and it’s created this Trump cult that dominates the party.”

Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), a Democrat who fended off Trump’s attempts to unseat him in last year’s midterm election, said of Republicans: “I don’t understand why they allow all of this stuff to go on. I would bet money two years ago — 20 years ago — that this would never happen. I’m not sure Watergate would be prosecuted under the conditions we have today.”

President Trump's speech at CPAC March 2, the longest of his presidency, covered topics such as the Russia probe, the Green New Deal and border security. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) publicly acknowledged what many Republicans say privately: The GOP is wholeheartedly accepting behavior and policies from Trump that would spark outrage from a Democratic president, particularly Trump’s attempt to use executive power in defiance of Congress to secure funding for a wall along the Mexican border.

“It’d be a little different,” Simpson said with a chuckle. “If President Obama had done the national emergency, Republicans would have gone crazy.”

Nonetheless, most Republicans backed Trump’s move last month, seeing it as a political exit ramp for the president as he flailed during the latest shutdown fight. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged Trump not to do it, only to eventually accept it. When House Democrats forced a vote Tuesday on legislation to overturn Trump’s declaration, just 6 percent of House Republicans dared to break publicly with Trump.

One defector was Rep. Thomas Massie (Ky.), a libertarian-leaning Republican who is well known for clashing with leadership. Trump backers in his ruby-red district were incensed.

“I’m feeling it right now,” Massie said. “Lots of phone calls for voting that way. But it’s okay, because my district knows me. For those who don’t have that brand, it’s more dangerous for them to try and take an independent path, because they’ll be seen as being against the president.”

Opposition among Senate Republicans has been more visible. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), facing a difficult reelection race next year, has said he would vote to curb Trump’s use of emergency powers in this instance, worrying that a Democratic president could “exploit” those powers in the future. Three GOP moderates — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — have also voiced opposition to Trump’s declaration and called on him to withdraw his plan or risk a rebellion.

But Trump had an ominous warning for those GOP critics in an interview last week with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity: “I think they put themselves at great jeopardy.”

On foreign policy — long the bastion of Republican hawks who have been hostile to dictators and supportive of global institutions — Trump has been cast as a GOP hero, despite his feuds with allies, protectionist trade policies and chummy engagement with autocrats such as Kim, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

When Trump declared after a summit with Kim in Hanoi last week that the North Korean leader was not responsible for the death of former prisoner and U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, most Republicans stayed mum.

“He’s doing a hell of a job as commander in chief,” Graham said at CPAC on Thursday.

Trump’s near daily dismissal of the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” has become another GOP refrain. Trump’s elected allies, such as Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), have buoyed the cause, repeatedly questioning the integrity of the Justice Department and FBI in the process.

Partisan loyalty to an embattled president has plenty of historical precedents. Many Republicans stood by Richard Nixon during Watergate and by Ronald Reagan during the Iran-contra scandal. Bill Clinton was supported by most Democrats even as he was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Any high-profile voices in the party objecting to Trump are increasingly scattered or silent, while the “Never Trump” faction from the 2016 campaign has all but fallen into obscurity.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who served as a foil to Trump and called him “dangerous,” passed away in August. Former president George H.W. Bush died in November, and his son, George W. Bush, shuns attention. Other onetime opponents have retreated, such as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has quarreled with Trump at times but has mostly stayed out of the spotlight.

Former Massachusetts governor William Weld has expressed interest in running against Trump in the Republican primary, but he is little known nationally. Former Ohio governor John Kasich (R) continues to toy with the idea but has not committed to a bid. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is also intrigued, but has said an insurgency would be futile unless Trump’s GOP support crumbles.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in January, 75 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents approve of Trump’s performance in office.

The Republican National Committee, led by Romney niece and Trump ally Ronna McDaniel, is using aggressive measures to stave off any possible primary threat. RNC members passed a resolution giving Trump the party’s “undivided support” and effectively merged with Trump’s campaign.

“They will lose horribly,” McDaniel said at CPAC about Trump’s potential Republican primary challengers.

Graham, who has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis from noisy Trump foe to vocal supporter, isn’t worried about the scandals engulfing the White House.

“I think people know what they’re going to get with President Trump,” Graham said in an interview. “A lot of people said some of the same things about him in the campaign. I’ve come to get to know the president. I like him, I understand his warts.”

But Cohen, who served as a top RNC official following Trump’s 2016 victory, offered words of caution for the president’s defenders during his House testimony Wednesday.

“I did the same thing that you’re doing now,” Cohen said, addressing Republicans on the panel. “And I can only warn people, the more people who follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”

Cohen was given a three-year prison sentence in December for lying to Congress, tax evasion and breaking campaign finance laws. He will report to prison in May.

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.