AGAINST THE GRAIN

Trump Could Be Toxic for GOP

After publication of Donald Jr.’s emails, Republicans are panicking that the political environment could get even worse.

Donald Trump Jr.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
July 11, 2017, 8 p.m.

For the first time in re­cent memory, the Drudge Re­port went rogue Monday night. The site, typ­ic­ally a re­li­able ag­greg­at­or of pro-Trump news and opin­ion, splashed a front-and-cen­ter pic­ture of the Krem­lin along with the head­line “THE E-MAIL.” Linked was the New York Times bomb­shell story re­port­ing that the pres­id­ent’s son was aware that his meet­ing with a Rus­si­an at­tor­ney was “part of a Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment ef­fort to aid his fath­er’s can­did­acy.”

It’s a re­mind­er that, as loy­al as Trump’s base ap­pears to be, his sup­port is not guar­an­teed to last forever. As un­in­ter­ested as av­er­age voters sound about the gush­er of Rus­sia news, the sheer pos­sib­il­ity that the pres­id­ent’s fam­ily and cam­paign staff know­ingly met with Rus­si­an op­er­at­ives to gath­er dirt on Hil­lary Clin­ton is bound to break through the sum­mer slum­ber. It’s easy to for­get that Don­ald Trump has been pres­id­ent for less than six months. His­tor­ic­ally, it takes time for a pres­id­ent to bleed sig­ni­fic­ant sup­port from his own party. Even Richard Nix­on main­tained ma­jor­ity sup­port with­in his own party up un­til his resig­na­tion.

The latest Rus­sia rev­el­a­tions, laid out in emails re­leased by Don­ald Trump Jr., prove that the White House was be­ing dis­hon­est in claim­ing there were no im­prop­er con­tacts between Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials and Rus­si­an rep­res­ent­at­ives. Re­pub­lic­ans are now pan­ick­ing that there will be more rev­el­a­tions of im­pro­pri­ety, cre­at­ing a polit­ic­al firestorm that can’t be ex­plained away. The fact that Trump’s son re­vealed the dam­aging in­form­a­tion him­self—re­leas­ing the em­bar­rass­ing emails in full—de­prives the pres­id­ent’s stal­wart de­fend­ers of ar­guing that this bomb­shell is “fake news” from the lib­er­al me­dia.

The com­ing months will of­fer a test of who the true Trump diehards are, and who will be seek­ing cov­er in the name of midterm pro­tec­tion. The Sen­ate’s re­sound­ing 97-2 vote last month im­pos­ing new sanc­tions on Rus­sia (and Ir­an) showed that Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent­ing broad­er con­stitu­en­cies are will­ing to break with Trump on the crit­ic­al is­sue of na­tion­al se­cur­ity. But House Re­pub­lic­ans’ ap­par­ent will­ing­ness to di­lute the le­gis­la­tion—at the re­quest of the White House—shows how strong the pull of par­tis­an­ship really is.

Here’s the di­lemma that Re­pub­lic­ans face, es­pe­cially those on a bal­lot next year. If con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans break from Trump pub­licly, they risk los­ing sup­port from a base that they need to win reelec­tion. Even in more mod­er­ate dis­tricts, los­ing a large num­ber of Trump diehards could fore­close their path to vic­tory. It’s no co­in­cid­ence that the three Sen­ate GOP can­did­ates who lost last year (Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte, and Joe Heck) had pub­licly dis­tanced them­selves from Trump. Re­pub­lic­ans took that les­son to heart, and even those who can’t stand Trump keep their mouths shut pub­licly so as not to need­lessly ali­en­ate his core sup­port­ers. So far, it’s been a savvy short-term strategy.

But if the Trump team’s en­tire de­fense on Rus­sia falls apart in the face of in­con­tro­vert­ible evid­ence, GOP can­did­ates will be hung out to dry if they dodge the is­sue. The early spin from Trump de­fend­ers so far is that at­temp­ted col­lu­sion with the Rus­si­ans isn’t il­leg­al. That’s not a ten­able de­fense for any­one else rep­res­ent­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party. And if evid­ence emerges that the pres­id­ent was aware that his cam­paign op­er­at­ives sought polit­ic­al as­sist­ance from Rus­si­ans, it could even­tu­ally punc­ture the Trump bubble.

Already, these de­vel­op­ments are caus­ing typ­ic­ally loy­al Re­pub­lic­ans to keep their dis­tance. Rep. Lee Zeld­in of New York, who rep­res­ents a swing Trump-friendly dis­trict on Long Is­land, wrote on Twit­ter: “I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to suc­ceed, but that meet­ing, giv­en that email chain just re­leased, is a big no-no.”

What’s iron­ic is that, un­til this week, Rus­sia wasn’t look­ing like a top is­sue driv­ing next year’s midterm elec­tions. Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats alike agreed that health care would carry more weight than the pres­id­ent’s Rus­si­an con­nec­tions. Rus­sia hardly came up in the high-stakes spe­cial elec­tions that Re­pub­lic­ans won earli­er this year. Some Re­pub­lic­ans were even egging on Demo­crats to make the midterms about im­peach­ment, hop­ing there would be a back­lash against par­tis­an over­reach. Now, all bets are off.

In a sign of the changed polit­ic­al at­mo­sphere, the usu­ally re­strained Tim Kaine is now sug­gest­ing Trump’s son may have com­mit­ted treas­on. The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee is press­ing House Re­pub­lic­ans on wheth­er they be­lieve Trump col­luded with Rus­sia. It’s hard to find any elec­ted Re­pub­lic­ans de­fend­ing Trump’s ac­tions; Zeld­in’s “big no-no” was a clas­sic in con­gres­sion­al rhet­or­ic. Even the White House is hunkered down in crisis mode.

It’s pre­ma­ture to de­clare that this new evid­ence of at­temp­ted col­lu­sion will make Rus­sia a cent­ral is­sue in the midterms. But if Re­pub­lic­ans aren’t buy­ing some Trump in­sur­ance to pro­tect them­selves from a fierce back­lash, they’ll be risk­ing polit­ic­al sui­cide.

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