Last week’s news came in two distinct, but related, bins. Bin #1 was Michael Wolff’s book disclosing that senior White House aides have little confidence in President Donald Trump’s ability to perform his duties and considerable contempt for him personally.
Bin #2 was the confirmation, via House Speaker Paul Ryan, that congressional Republicans will go to frightening lengths to protect Trump from the implications and consequences of Bin #1.
Ryan met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI head Christopher Wray in the Capitol. According to CNN, the topic was a demand for sensitive FBI documents made by Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes, seeking to thwart the investigation of the Trump campaign’s myriad contacts with Russians, wants access to the documents, details of which could prove useful to Trump’s political and legal defenders. The FBI wanted to restrict access to the documents and protect the integrity of its investigation. Ryan sided with Nunes.
So this is the way it’s going to be. The midterm elections in November will inevitably be a referendum on the most unconventional president in American history. Most Democratic voters have concluded that he is a dangerous and corrupt buffoon. If that view drives the elections, and determines the outcome, at least a couple dozen Republicans will lose their seats, and the party will lose control of the House. Trump’s low approval rating seems bound to drive down Republican votes; Republicans appear determined to do whatever they can to keep it from dropping further.
To prevent that double-barreled disaster, Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the vast majority of their Capitol Hill flock will spend the next 10 months demanding investigations into Hillary Clinton, individual FBI agents and anyone else who either threatens Trump or can serve as a distraction from the investigative fact pattern leading to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Thus Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa called for an investigation of a British consultant who provided information, for a fee, to an American research firm, producing the so-called dossier on Trump connections to Russia. The senators have offered no plausible case of wrongdoing; information obtained through legal means continues to be freely exchangeable, for free or for payment. But Republicans are prepared to level allegations and hope what doesn’t stick at least distracts.
Anyone can join the game. Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican under investigation for campaign finance violations, last week echoed Trump’s lament, claiming that the FBI, that bastion of left-wing subversion, is now out to get him, too.
It’s unlikely the GOP has a plan beyond November. Just as the party increasingly shares and validates Trump’s post-fact relationship to truth, it is adopting, by necessity, his ad-hoc approach to politics. The plutocrat versus populist argument is moot for now. The racial agenda of the GOP base remains joined to the plutocratic agenda of the GOP donors. Neither side can command a majority of its own.
The party is not especially coherent. But as the effort to protect Trump shows, that doesn’t mean it’s not united.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.