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.