During the final competitive stages of the 2016 presidential primary, Ted Cruz was all that stood between the Republican Party and nominating a candidate who called Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” insulted his wife’s appearance, and accused his father of possibly helping to assassinate JFK. Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, has never been one to let a thing like pathologically dishonest bullying affect his political judgment. In a New York Times op-ed this weekend, Roe urges his party to stand behind its president. “No, you don’t have to support the president’s tweet storms,” he wrote. “But you do have to defend his policy accomplishments.”
What Roe has defined here is the mainstream stance of the Republican Party. A handful of dissidents, all of whom are retiring from elected office, have attacked the president as unfit for office. A considerably larger group on the right has staunchly defended every aspect of his performance. But the largest faction of the party has taken the position that Donald Trump is a fantastically successful president whose main error is undisciplined tweeting.
What is most notable about this approach is what it omits: the idea that Trump possesses authoritarian instincts or might be deeply implicated in the Russia scandal. It focuses entirely on the most superficial critique of his job performance and ignores evidence of his fundamental unfitness for office.
This weekend, Trump abandoned his pose of restraint toward Robert Mueller and began openly lashing out at the special counsel. This was yet another effort to test the limits of what his Republican allies would accept. Trump proceeded to hire a lawyer, Joseph E. diGenova, who has described the Russia investigation as a plot to “frame Donald Trump with a falsely created crime.”
The mainstream Republican response to these provocations has focused on the style of Trump’s actions, rather than the substance. A Wall Street Journal editorial applauds the firing of Andrew McCabe from the FBI, assuring its readers that — while the evidence remains private — McCabe probably deserved it. “Mr. Sessions’s statement was a straightforward explanation that he fired Mr. McCabe for a serious violation of duty,” the Journal concludes. The stated rationale for the firing “should have been cause for Mr. Trump to let the dismissal speak for itself, but the President is too self-involved for such restraint,” the editorial lamented. “Instead he tweeted on Saturday, ‘Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI — A great day for Democracy.’”
Maybe the fact that Trump decided to taunt and smear the fired civil servant should be evidence that, perhaps, the pretext given for his firing is not entirely on the level. Maybe McCabe was singled out for scrutiny because Trump has demanded such an action. The Journal does not entertain the possibility, though. Trump is simply making the completely neutral execution of administrative justice appear biased for no reason at all.
Republican congressman Trey Gowdy, the former Benghazi inquisitor, has moved from his party’s fever swamp wing to its mainstream (or perhaps stood still while the party lurched further toward craziness than he could tolerate). Gowdy, who is retiring, scolded Trump’s lawyer John Dowd for threatening Mueller, saying, “If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it.” But what if … Dowd’s client is not innocent? It would certainly explain his behavior, but also force people like Gowdy to entertain scenarios they would rather ignore.
The assumption that Trump is probably innocent informs the party’s most popular position on Mueller, which is to quietly defend his work, while ignoring the possibility that Trump would fire him. Last year, several Republican senators expressed support in passing a law to protect Mueller from the kind of purge Trump seems intent upon carrying out. But the progress of those bills has crawled to a halt. Democratic senators are pleading with their Republican colleagues to pass them before it’s too late:
Some Republicans openly oppose the legislation. Orrin Hatch says firing Mueller would be “the stupidest thing” Trump could do, but opposes any bills to prevent him from doing it. Likewise, John Cornyn insists, “I think it’d be a bad mistake for the president to fire the director. And I don’t think he’ll do it, so I don’t see any benefit in trying to pass a law.” It would be “stupid” and a “mistake” for Trump to try to shut down the prosecutor. Because he’s innocent, of course.
Most Republicans haven’t come out and repudiated these bills. Instead, they have slow-walked them and refused to say anything in public. “By some leaders’ reckoning, the special counsel bills are not yet ripe for consideration,” reports the Washington Post. “Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has said he will not schedule the bills for a markup until they are merged into a single piece of legislation.”
We know what it looks like when Republicans actually want to get a bill passed quickly. Just recall the frantic rush to pass the Trump tax cuts, a massive law shot through with errors in the haste to get something accomplished. It does not take much imagination to discern why the party is not eager to publicly declare themselves on the issue. They have hitched their political fortunes to the president. It is possible he could ultimately go so far as to violate their conscience, or their polling numbers, provoking a revolt. But in the meantime Trump’s party is giving every impression of quiescence. And that passivity, in turn, is feeding Trump’s confidence and aggression.