Republicans Don’t Want to Talk About It

Orrin Hatch speaks to a group of congressional Republicans.
Congressional Republicans and President Trump gather on the South Lawn of the White House.CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS
When then-candidate Donald Trump urged the Russian government to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, in 2016, his own running mate Mike Pence turned on him, warning the Kremlin of “serious consequences” if Russian hackers had interfered in the election. The leader of Trump’s party in the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, advised the “devious thug” Vladimir Putin to “stay out of this election.”

When Trump said he would accept damaging information on a political opponent from another country, this past June, Republican lawmakers reprimanded the president. “If a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value, the answer is no,” said Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s top allies in the Senate.

But something significant happened yesterday. Standing before reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump urged two foreign governments—including one that his administration and members of his party have identified as a potential existential threat to the American way of life—to intervene in the 2020 U.S. election by investigating what he alleges was wrongdoing by the man most likely to challenge him for the presidency. In a twist on Richard Nixon’s infamous declaration that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Trump signaled that when the president does it openly and unabashedly, that must mean it is a perfectly normal use of power rather than an abuse of it.

Implicitly, he was daring his fellow Republicans to say otherwise. And thus far they mostly have not, choosing instead to either cheer on the president or stay silent on the matter. Just like that, a democratic norm stretching back to the founding of the republic is collapsing before our eyes.

In his remarks, Trump called on the Ukrainian government to open a “major” corruption investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter—saying out loud what he had quietly conveyed to the Ukrainian president in a phone call now at the center of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats. Then the president went much further still, encouraging the Chinese government, which is embroiled in a trade war with the Trump administration, to launch a probe into the Bidens’ business dealings as well.

Beijing is unlikely to comply with Trump’s wishes, but that doesn’t make the president’s move any less striking. With regard to China, Trump wasn’t just exploiting his foreign-policy making powers to target Biden and possibly violating the law by asking for something of value to his campaign from a foreign national, as appears to be the case with Ukraine. He was also turning for help in his reelection bid to an authoritarian adversary. In both instances, Trump was attempting to assign investigations into his domestic rival not to his own law-enforcement agencies but to those of Ukraine and China, ranked 77th and 82nd out of 126 countries, respectively, in a recent global survey of the rule of law.

What’s more, Trump has cast the solicitation of political assistance from whichever foreign power is forthcoming as a routine “duty” and “absolute right” of his office. “As President I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION, even if that means requesting the help of a foreign country or countries. It is done all the time,” he wrote on Twitter today. Trump’s concern about corruption, however, happens to focus solely on a case affecting his personal political interests and one he claims to have already cracked despite a lack of evidence.

In the face of all this, Republicans have largely joined ranks with the president or held their fire. Asked whether Trump’s China comments were appropriate, Pence deferred this time around to his boss, noting that the American people have a “right to know” whether Biden or his family “profited from his position,” and that Trump clearly believes “other nations around the world should look into it as well.” Kevin McCarthy, the new Republican leader in the House, has yet to say anything about the president’s overture to China, instead pressing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to suspend her impeachment inquiry, because of flaws in the process. Graham, who says he has “zero problems” with Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president, has gently pushed back against the president’s latest salvo in his campaign against Biden while defending it as an understandable response to persecution. “I don’t want to go down that road,” Graham told The Washington Post regarding a Chinese probe of the Biden family, but Trump “feels like everyone is coming after him all the time and he hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Some have even taken this moment to recognize Trump’s trademark boldness. “It’s classic Donald Trump,” The Wall Street Journal’s editor at large, Gerard Baker, crowed on Fox News yesterday regarding the president’s China gambit. “He doubles down.” Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who noted that he doesn’t “trust” China and would rather the Bidens be investigated domestically, nevertheless downplayed the president’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart as “Trump being Trump.”

Congressional Republicans such as Cory Gardner, Lisa Murkowski, and Thom Tillis, who all expressed disgust several months ago about Trump’s openness to accepting compromising material about an opponent from foreign sources, have as of this writing not directly addressed the propriety of Trump’s call for China and Ukraine to scrutinize the Democratic front-runner in the race for the White House. (The Atlantic reached out to two dozen Republicans who sit on relevant foreign-affairs committees in the House and Senate regarding their reaction to Trump’s message yesterday and its national-security consequences. All either declined to comment or did not respond to the queries.)

Some Republicans have criticized Trump’s appeals to Ukraine and China, but for now they are the exceptions. The senator from Utah and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a statement that the president’s actions were “wrong and appalling,” and that “when the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.* The senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse told the Omaha World-Herald that “Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth. If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps.” Will Hurd, a congressman from Texas who is not seeking reelection, told CNN that “a president of the United States shouldn’t be doing” what Trump did, adding that “we’re in a tight and complex trade negotiation with China now, and so you’re potentially giving them something to hold over your head.”

But for the most part, Trump’s no-holds-barred approach to politics now seems to hold sway within the Grand Old Party. Short-term calculations have eclipsed long-term considerations, such as how Republicans would feel if a Democratic president mimicked Trump’s actions to take down a GOP rival. What divides Americans (partisan politics) has overwhelmed what unites them (a commitment to democracy that, say, China doesn’t share).

At its most fundamental, what Trump questioned yesterday was who gets to have a say in how the American people choose their political leaders. He did so in a manner that would have alarmed the Founding Fathers and is largely without precedent in modern American history. (Perhaps the closest analogue is the Nixon campaign’s outreach to the South Vietnamese government to thwart efforts at ending the Vietnam War and boost his chances in the 1968 election. But even in that case Nixon was not directly involved in the scheme to the extent Trump has been in his.)

Over the past two weeks, the question at the heart of the Ukraine scandal has morphed from whether Trump pressured a foreign government to investigate and implicate his likely challenger for the presidency to whether doing so is right or wrong. The president, facing off against an opposing team, sought to recruit a third team watching from the sidelines to his side. When the whistle blew in response to the blatant infraction, Trump’s defiant response was to try to enlist yet another team and to declare that these are simply the new rules of the game. So far, most of his teammates have discarded the old rules and rallied behind their captain.

Trump and Taxes: The Art of the Dodge

This week’s episode of Trump, Inc. brings clarity to a complex subject. It identifies three patterns in the president’s approach to taxes.

  1. First, it describes a history of ignoring norms (which, for presidential candidates, include releasing tax returns).
  2. Second, it delves into a recent New York Times investigation — which concluded that the president’s family committed “outright fraud” — to show a history of breaking tax rules.
  3. Finally, it examines Trump’s ability to change tax rules to benefit himself and his wealthy peers.

The episode includes an interview with The New York Times’ Susanne Craig, the co-author of the expose that reported that Fred Trump passed $413 million in today’s dollars to his son Donald, who describes how she reported her article and the mysteries she and her colleagues unraveled. It also examines a second New York Times article that explored how Kushner exploited a seemingly prosaic tax technique — depreciation — to wipe out his taxable income. (Representatives of the Trumps and Kushners have denied any tax improprieties.) Finally, the episode looks at many of the ways in which Trump’s signature tax cut will redound to the benefit of the real estate industry.

Trump’s FBI Problem Is a Character Problem

This points to something I’ve been writing about for two years now. Trump defenders want to defend everything Trump does outside of the lines of normalcy on the grounds that he is a disrupter. There are several problems with this argument, but I’ll focus on two. The first is that much of Trump’s disruptiveness is characterological, not programmatic or ideological.  If you want to defend the president’s prerogative to question the value of NATO, that’s fine. That’s one kind of disruption, to be sure. But his personal behavior from his pettiness, impulsiveness, and constant mendacity is disruptive, too. And you can’t expect people un-besotted with him to compartmentalize the two the way you do. Trump’s erratic behavior is endearing to some and worrisome to others. Expecting those endeared to find it troubling is as foolhardy as expecting the worriers to find it charming, particularly if the worrier has a responsibility to act.

Second,  Trump supporters simultaneously celebrate his disruptiveness, and even his violation of democratic norms, but are scandalized when he provokes equally disruptive or norm-violating responses. When I hear Kevin McCarthy complain that Nancy Pelosi’s quasi disinvitation to deliver the State of the Union is “beneath” the office of the speaker, or when I hear praetorian pundits denounce the profane language of his opponents as if they shock the conscience of Trump supporters, I want to resort to the international sign-language gesture for Onanism.

If you are going to anoint a Cincinnatus who lays down his golf bag to save the Republic for being willing to break the rules and fight for ends heedless of traditional means, you should probably avoid clutching your pearls when partisans and even non-partisan institutionalists alike behave as if there are no guard rails for them either.

This Is the World Mitch McConnell Gave Us

it is, essentially, a kind of shrine to the political career of Mr. McConnell, not unlike the exhibits on Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron you’d find at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

.. it memorializes a politician who shows no sign of leaving the stage any time soon.

.. What’s most unusual, though, is what it chooses to highlight. There are a few artifacts from Mr. McConnell’s youth — his baseball glove, his honorary fraternity paddle — but most of the exhibits are devoted to the elections Mr. McConnell won, starting with high school and on up through Jefferson County executive and the Senate.

.. When I visited the room while researching my 2014 biography on Mr. McConnell, I was struck by what was missing: exhibits on actual governing accomplishments from the Senate majority leader’s four decades in elected office.

That absence confirmed my thesis that Mr. McConnell, far more even than other politicians, was motivated by the game of politics — winning elections and rising in the leadership ranks, achieving power for power’s sake — more than by any lasting policy goals.

.. it is becoming increasingly clear that Mitch McConnell is creating a legacy for himself, and it’s a mighty grand one.

.. Mr. McConnell has created the world in which we are now living. Donald Trump dominates our universe — and now has the power to fill the second Supreme Court seat in two years. Mitch McConnell, who has promised a vote on whomever the president nominates “this fall,” is the figure who was quietly making it all possible

.. First, there was Mr. McConnell’s vigorous defense, going back to the early 1990s, of the role of big money in American politics

..  helping shape the conditions for his appeal.

.. he was well aware that he, as someone lacking in natural campaign talents, and the rest of the Republican Party, as more business-oriented than the Democrats, would need to maintain the flow of large contributions to be able to win elections. “I will always be well financed, and I’ll be well financed early,” he declared after winning his first race for county executive, in 1977.

.. culminated in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling eliminating limits on corporate spending on elections, which Mr. McConnell followed up by blocking legislation to disclose the identity of large donors.

.. the spread of big money in politics had done so much to sour the public on government, creating a ripe target for the Tea Party and, later, for a billionaire populist running against “the swamp.”

.. laid the groundwork for the right-wing insurgency of 2009 and 2010

.. his decision to withhold Republican support for any major Democratic initiatives in the Obama years. This meant that Republicans had less influence on the final shape of legislation such as the Affordable Care Act than they would have had as fully willing negotiators.

.. fueled the rise of the Tea Party, which was motivated substantially by the notion that Mr. Obama was “ramming things down our throats”
.. his refusal to hold a confirmation hearing, let alone a vote on Merrick Garland, Mr. Obama’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, despite the fact that the nomination was made a full 10 months before the end of Mr. Obama’s term. This refusal exploded norms and dismayed Beltway arbiters who had long accepted Mr. McConnell’s claim to be a guardian of Washington institutions. It also provided crucial motivation to Republicans who had grave qualms about Mr. Trump but were able to justify voting for him as “saving Scalia’s seat.”
.. Mr. Obama had been prepared that September to go public with a C.I.A. assessment laying bare the extent of Russian intervention in the election. But he was largely dissuaded by a threat from Mr. McConnell.
.. During a secret briefing for congressional leaders, The Post reported, Mr. McConnell “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
.. Mr. McConnell’s doing away last year with the 60-vote requirement for Senate confirmation, to get Neil Gorsuch seated
.. In the 1970s, when he ran for county executive in Louisville, he secured the pivotal endorsement of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. by pledging to back collective bargaining for public employees (a promise that went unfulfilled), and while in office he worked effectively behind the scenes to protect abortion rights locally.
.. Mr. McConnell saw the rightward swing of the Reagan revolution and decided to hop on board for his own political preservation as a Southern Republican. These days, Mr. McConnell has made explicit, with taunting tweets among other things, that he views long-term conservative control of the Supreme Court as his crowning achievement.
.. Holding a long-term majority on the court greatly aids his highest cause — Republican victories in future elections — as recent rulings on voting rights and gerrymandering demonstrated once again.
Whether Mr. McConnell decides to add an exhibit in the Civic Education Gallery documenting his role in the rise of Donald Trump is another matter. The final historical judgment on that score will not rest with him, in any case.

Staying on the Path

One of the more reliable themes in literature and popular culture is the idea of “staying on the path.” In Breaking Bad, Walter White plays a decent, hardworking high-school chemistry teacher. By the end, he’s a mass-murdering drug lord. The journey, like all such journeys, begins with a simple plan to take a single small step off the path.

.. Staying on the path is for lesser, weaker men.

.. In one sense, staying on the path is the simplest thing in the world. But as anyone who has tried to stay on a diet, go to the gym regularly, or start writing that term paper well ahead of the deadline can attest, the simplest things in life can often be the hardest. As Al Pacino, after his late-in-life graduation from Over-Acting School, says in Scent of a Woman, during the final “trial” scene:

I’m not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: He won’t sell anybody out to buy his future!! And that, my friends, is called integrity! That’s called courage! Now that’s the stuff leaders should be made of. Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard. Now here’s Charlie. He’s come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It’s the right path. It’s a path made of principle — that leads to character. Let him continue on his journey.

 

.. Ron Haskins, also of the Brookings Institution, has identified what he calls the “success sequence”: “at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.” If young people do just these three things, in that order, they are almost guaranteed to climb out of poverty. “Our research shows that of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning around $55,000 or more per year).”

This is the path that almost guarantees a relatively decent life for poor people. And yet, many don’t follow it. Why? One reason: because it is hard. The pull of human nature is strongest when we are young — all those hormones! All of that adolescent arrogance! We think — feel, really — that the rules are for other people and that we can handle all of the possible consequence of indulging our glandular impulses. (Another reason more people don’t follow this path: Our culture and many of our elites heap scorn on it.) 

.. Staying on the path may be the most conservative concept there is. “What is conservatism?” asked Abraham Lincoln. “Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?” People who think conservatism is opposed to all change miss the point entirely. Paths go places. They might not get us where we want to go as fast as we would like. But the conservative is deeply skeptical of shortcuts and simple plans to save time or effort. The rationalist temptation to “out think” the simple rules — what Oakeshott called “making politics as the crow flies” — may not always lead to tyranny or oppression, but the odds that it will are too great to justify the attempt.

.. Of course, he doesn’t deserve anything like all of the blame; conservatives often responded to his norm-breaking with norm violations of their own. The culture itself was ready for a president like Clinton, and that is its own indictment. Indeed, as Bill has often suggested, he was a victim of a breakdown in media practices and other norms that once would have protected him. That’s why he loves to hide behind whataboutist arguments about JFK’s transgressions. But it wasn’t just the sex. He broke norms, legal and otherwise, like a tornado ripping through town. Shaking down foreign donors , the White House travel-office firings, “Filegate,” selling pardons, the list goes on.

..  And Hillary Clinton wasn’t just standing by her man baking cookies. She was part of the racket. From her impossible genius at playing cattle futures, to her insidious cultivation of Sidney Blumenthal and David Brock, to her off-book email server, Hillary Clinton has always seen norms as something that should constrain other people.

.. I know liberals hate any “This is how you got Trump”

.. Donald Trump cast himself as a capitalist übermensch, who transcended the rules of a corrupt system he boasted about being a part of. He was one giant middle-finger to the norms, and he has invited a responding counter-attack on norms — from journalists, judges, and, it seems, at least a few FBI agents.

.. For instance, in a normal time, a man with his sordid sexual history could never get near the Republican nomination, never mind the presidency. But we live in a moment of whataboutist asininity when hypocrisy is considered a worse sin than the actual transgressions we’re hypocritical about.

.. It’s as if a murderer, who had a history of preaching against murder, is seen as more of a villain for violating his principles than for killing someone. No wonder Donald Trump could neutralize his transgressions simply by pointing to Bill’s. The common denominators cancelled out the numerators.

.. Point out that no reputable economist thinks we lose money from trade deficits the way Trump constantly insists, and the retort is, “Why don’t you want to make America great again?”

.. Point out that Trump Inc. is making money off the presidency in ways that would make the Clintons green with envy, and the reply is either eye-rolling or a fecal fog of whataboutism.

.. To paraphrase Nietzsche: Norms are for losers. Fighters make their own norms. Unity is the creed of MAGA, and its mantra of the One True Prophet is the order of the day. And if that means supporting a white-nationalist wannabe for the Senate, so be it. Campus conservatives used to define their intellectual rebelliousness by their support for certain ideas, now some define it chiefly by their fawning over a single politician.

The religious right understood Trump perfectly. Now he’s delivering for them.

How could this man, with his libertine lifestyle and his laughably insincere declarations of faith, win them over when they had so many other genuinely religious primary candidates to choose from? And why did they stick with him so fervently in the general election, giving him a remarkable 81 percent of white evangelical votes, more than any other presidential candidate since that question has been asked in exit polls?

.. Donald Trump is delivering for the religious right — more than they could have hoped for. In other words, when everyone questioned their judgment, they knew just what they were doing. And they turned out to be right.

Many of them cited the Supreme Court as the key to their reasoning. Nothing was more important than keeping the Court in Republican hands, so that Roe v. Wade might be overturned and other rulings friendly to conservative Christians will continue to be handed down.

.. The draft order seeks to create wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious or moral objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity, and it seeks to curtail women’s access to contraception and abortion through the Affordable Care Act.

.. They weren’t fooled into thinking his faith was sincere. But I suspect they caught something else in his rhetoric: The willingness to state clearly that he was on the side not just of some abstract “religious freedom,” but for Christians specifically. For Trump, it’s all about Us and Them. Christians are Us, and everybody else (particularly Muslims) is Them.

.. The substance and implications of the issues aren’t important to Trump, which made him the perfect candidate for the religious right. They didn’t need a person of sincere faith. They needed someone with tribal instincts and an appetite for smashing established norms.

.. Last January, Trump went to Liberty University and cited a passage from “Two Corinthians” (instead of “Second Corinthians”) to much mockery. Look at how phony and insincere he is!, people said. But the most important thing he said came right after he read the verse. “Is that the one?” he asked. “Is that the one you like? I think that’s the one you like.”

.. In his usual unadorned way, Trump was proclaiming his willingness to pander as shamelessly as necessary, and give the religious right whatever they wanted. They got the message. And now they’re getting their reward.

The Tempting of the Media

The second is that this will be a golden age for the media, offering reporters a chance to shake free from access journalism and source-greasing and actually do their job in full, while finding in a Trump-fearing country the audience for serious investigative journalism that many believed had vanished with the internet.

.. The cycle of norm-breaking that began with Robert Bork’s defeated nomination or Newt Gingrich’s ascent (depending on your politics) may escalate on both sides of the aisle.

.. Politicians will be tempted, like Marco Rubio talking about Trump’s manhood on the campaign trail, into surrendering their dignity in an effort to be at home in Trumpland.

.. That dossier may well include some dark truths, but the way they were delivered to American news readers was effectively self-discrediting, more likely to help Trump brush aside legitimate allegations than to pin him or his circle to the wall.

.. The problem is that all of this alarmist journalism, no less than the really fake news churned out by pro-Trump trolls and cynics, has commercial imperatives behind it. There is a large and frightened readership looking for confirmation of its darkest fears in every “unprecedented” (but often, not really) move that Trump and his administration make.