In the hours after President Trump’s wavering response to the neo-Nazi-fueled clashes last weekend that left one dead and 19 injured in Charlottesville, Sen. Cory Gardner assumed the role of moral conscience of the Republican Party.
“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” the Colorado Republican tweeted within hours of Trump’s assertion Saturday that “many sides” were to blame for the mayhem. Gardner reiterated those comments on the Sunday talk-show circuit, directly calling out Trump’s equivocation on who had prompted the clashes.
But for the next six weeks, one of Gardner’s prime responsibilities will be to tout Trump’s virtues to Alabama Republicans in an effort to help Sen. Luther Strange secure the nomination for a special election later this year.
Gardner is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the political arm of GOP leadership that is staunchly behind Strange. And Strange’s path to victory, after finishing second in Tuesday’s initial ballot, will rely heavily on reminding Alabama conservatives that they continue to support Trump and that they should transfer that support to Trump’s choice for senator — Strange.
This is what Trump has done to congressional Republicans. It’s almost the definition of what Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), in his new book “Conscience of a Conservative,” labeled the “Faustian bargain” between Trump and the GOP.
At a moment when Republicans are horrified by Trump’s moral equivalence on white supremacy, they also rely on him to continue endorsing and promoting their colleague, Strange, who was appointed interim senator after Jeff Sessions became Trump’s attorney general.
To do otherwise might cede the nomination to Roy Moore, a controversial former judge who might put the seat, held by Republicans for more than 20 years, at risk of falling to the Democratic nominee in the general election.
The NRSC and Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC run by close allies of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), went out of their way to praise Trump late Tuesday night after Strange and Moore advanced to the Sept. 26 runoff election.
“President Trump’s pick for Senate successfully advanced to the runoff election, and we are confident he will be elected to remain in the Senate come December,” Gardner said in a statement.
“We are proud to have strongly supported President Trump’s number-one ally in this race, and we believe the President’s support will be decisive as we head into the next phase of this campaign,” Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, said in his statement.
Law was McConnell’s most senior adviser until 2001, when he became chief of staff to Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, who had just been confirmed as labor secretary. Law remained close to Chao and eventually won confirmation as deputy secretary in his own right, the No. 2 position in that department.
On Tuesday afternoon, at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Chao stood over the president’s left shoulder, ostensibly there to tout the still-undefined infrastructure package Trump wants to promote. She’s now the president’s secretary of transportation.
Chao endured last week’s volley of angry comments from Trump toward her husband, as he blamed McConnell for the Senate’s failure to advance legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday, she stood to Trump’s left and listened to the president describe the “many good people” in the Charlottesville marches — which had been organized by white supremacists and included people carrying flags in honor of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Chao’s family roots lie in the Shanghai region of China. Her father, a merchant marine fighting Mao Zedong’s rebels, fled to Taiwan as China fell to a communist regime that would slaughter millions. It was a brutal reign that in some ways echoed the Nazis in Germany.
She faced questions after Trump ended his comments Tuesday. “I stand by my man — both of them,” Chao said, declining to criticize Trump.
McConnell waited until after 10 a.m. Wednesday to comment after Trump’s Tuesday pronouncement that there were “two sides to a story” about Charlottesville, taking note that the same groups now want to come to McConnell’s home state’s capital of Frankfort.
“Their message of hate and bigotry are not welcome in Kentucky and should not be welcome anywhere in America,” he said in a prepared statement.
In his book, Flake took barely veiled shots at McConnell for not building up a real conservative policy agenda in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, instead publicly declaring that defeating Obama in 2012 was his top priority as GOP leader.
“The corollary to this binary thinking being that his failure would be our success and the fortunes of the citizenry would presumably be sorted out in the meantime,” Flake wrote.
Flake went on to mock GOP leaders who believed that, despite Trump’s erratic behavior and sometimes repudiation of conservative principles, unified Republican control of Washington would lead to big victories such as tax cuts.
“If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it,” Flake wrote.
Now Republicans find themselves once again clashing with Trump on moral grounds, denouncing his position on white supremacists. This follows their critiques of Trump as a candidate when he attacked the war heroics of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” engaged in a weeks-long feud with a Pakistani American father whose son died on the battlefield in Iraq, called for a travel ban of all Muslims, and was discovered to have bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation caught on a hot microphone.
But down in Alabama, one of the most conservative states in the nation and one with its own racially divisive history, Trump remains extraordinarily popular.
Among Alabama Republicans, Trump’s favorability rating tops 85 percent, according to two GOP strategists following the Senate race there. And Trump has endorsed Strange, which the NRSC and McConnell’s super PAC plan to tout as the single biggest reason the state’s Republicans should rally around Strange.
These same Republicans say they will continue to denounce Trump every time he equivocates when they see moral clarity. The hope in the short term is to avoid the political and moral association with the president’s more troubling words and deeds.
“My answer will never change on this issue,” Gardner tweeted Tuesday, after wrapping up several town halls. “We must all call evil by its name and never back down from denouncing hate and racism.”
The risk in the long term, however, is having to face what increasingly feels like an unanswerable question: why they continue to repeat the cycle, again and again, without any real change from the president.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the capital of Kentucky.