the swamp

Among the Witches

Inside the Republicans’ bunker.

Illustration: Horacio Salinas
Illustration: Horacio Salinas
Illustration: Horacio Salinas

“It’s hard to be worried when you don’t really like the guy.” That’s what one senior Republican Senate aide had to say when I asked how concerned conservatives are about Donald Trump’s fate.

The truth is, Trump fatigue is a condition that knows no party, and many Republicans are as tired of this shit as anybody else. That’s not to say they’re outraged, or motivated to Make a Difference. They’re just tired. You can live inside the right-wing bubble in a state of depression, resigned to the fact that, yeah, every five minutes or so, the president is probably going to do something norm-shattering or potentially impeachable, and no, you probably won’t or can’t do anything to change that. Sad!

“I’m totally bored by the story,” one person who speaks regularly with the president told me. “There’s nothing to it. I already know all the details.” This person is bored more generally, too — with the topic of Donald Trump. When we talk about what it would take for the president’s defenders to turn on him, this crucial piece is missing: You can’t feel outraged if you can no longer feel anything at all.

“This isn’t that much different than the other crazy shit he’s done in the last three years,” the senior Republican Senate aide said. “In some ways, people are both pissed off about it but then it’s also like, Are we gonna go crazy over this incident when we’ve seen so much other stuff? Not to minimize the seriousness here, but what came out in the call transcript is not exactly shocking. If I were to describe Republicans one way, it would be weary.
Weary and numb. It’s been a long three years for Republicans on the Hill. Not to say we’re the real victims — Yeah, start passing around the collection plate for us!

Even insiders, like Rudy Giuliani, can find themselves in sudden darkness and uncertainty. Speaking to reporters on October 11, Trump said he wasn’t sure the increasingly problematic former mayor was still representing him—echoing language he’s often used for his staff before he whacks them. I talked to Giuliani via text, where he insisted, “I am still his lawyer until he tells me I’m not … All I can tell you is that I still represent him as I have since April 2018. End of story.” (He closed by sending me the stop-sign emoji, after I asked if he’d be surprised if the president threw him under the bus in the end.)

For the White House, impeachment is just another example of how it’s been “under siege” since day one. Early in the administration, in the golden age of the backbiting leakers, you were more likely to find dissent quietly simmering in the West Wing. But something shifted in year two, and whatever anyone thinks about the merits of the Ukraine story is almost beside the point. The point is the White House is a bunker and what Trump says goes. The White House and the Trump campaign have distributed talking points, or “TEAM TRUMP TALKERS,” to congressional Republicans and surrogates, or to the people who go on cable TV to spin a story in favor of the president, and it’s all par for the course: “Impeachment has been the goal of Democrats before President Trump took office”; “Since Democrats have no chance at beating President Trump in 2020, they plan to undermine Democracy at the expense of the American people”; “Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment inquiry is illegitimate and unconstitutional”; “President Trump made the unprecedented decision to release the transcript of the phone call with the Ukrainian President because he is the most transparent President in history”; “We already know that the first whistleblower is a registered Democrat”; “The whistleblower had no first-hand knowledge of the call between President Trump and the Ukrainian President.” And, my personal favorite bullet point: “This is a total witch hunt scam.”

Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow. Photographs: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images (Trump head); Peter Dezeley/Getty Images (whistle)

If you were to turn on Fox News, this is what you would hear. I called up Newt Gingrich the other day, and it was like he was just reading directly from these emails, which suggest a strategy of partisan bullying and obfuscation. In other words, no real counterargument or legal defense to speak of.

“My take is the White House ought to stonewall them totally, because they have no official standing,” Gingrich said. “This is clearly not an official action of the House. This is a partisan witch hunt by left-wing Democrats and, by the way — the first article about impeachment is Vanity Fair on December 15, 2016! The day that Trump was sworn in, on January 20, 2017, the Washington Post has an article on the efforts to begin the impeachment drive. So, any of us who are conservative think this whole thing is a partisan witch hunt and has no legal bearing and it’s being handled very badly and it’s going to lead to a fiasco when we get to the Senate.” Before our conversation got derailed by his complaints about media bias, Gingrich, changing the subject from the quasi-legal matter of impeachment to the landscape of political futures, said, “I think Trump will win potentially a landslide on a scale you can’t imagine.” And then he texted me at 2:21 a.m. to suggest I read a column by The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel, whom the president loves.

“The White House is just like, ‘Oh, Trump will handle everything.’ Which is crazy — but it seems like that’s their strategy,” the senior Repubican Senate aide told me. “It’s a depressing time.”

I asked if anything would change for conservatives, if there was any significance in those predictable reports, like the one I’ve written here, about how, privately, some of them feel bad, even if they never pipe up publicly.
“It’s all bullshit until it’s not. At this point, it is bullshit. Obviously it could change, but it hasn’t. So who cares?”

*This article appears in the October 14, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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