January 14, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
GOP’s Intra-Party Collision Course
Powerful and opposing forces believe they can save the Republican Party.
Lincoln Mitchell, in an op-ed for Reuters, is almost certainly correct. Any Republican seeking to challenge the president will fail, he said. While that’s true, so is this, I think: The incentives to challenge a weak president may be overwhelming despite that. We thought the GOP would crack up in 2016. Our timing was off by about four years.
At the White House this morning, Donald Trump denied that he ever worked for the Russians. This came after an explosive article in the Times Friday reporting that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation on the president soon after he fired James Comey. What had been an obstruction of justice question was revealed to have been, in addition, a question of national security. As Lawfare’s Benjamin Witte wrote Saturday: “What if the obstruction was the collusion—or at least a part of it?”
Trump failed to deny that he worked for the Russians during a weekend interview on Fox News, so he was sure to make his denial crystal clear this morning when asked again. But as with all things Trump, whatever he says now is met with large grains of salt, or total disbelief. The American voting public has this president’s number.
Most people most of the time do not believe the country faces a national security crisis on the Southern border, and given that most people most of the time do not believe Trump’s fear-mongering, there’s no ground for him to keep the government closed. The obverse is also true: the longer the president keeps the government closed, the more people are going to react to whatever he says with partial or total disbelief.
Apart from everything else, this is the product of thousands of known and documented lies. When the president says that, “I never worked for Russia. It’s a disgrace that you even asked that question because it’s a whole big fat hoax. It’s just a hoax”—well, you know. Trump, as they used to say on “Law & Order,” is not a credible witness.
He’s disloyal, too, or appears increasingly so. The seeds of doubt were planted before he took office. Did he or didn’t he work with, or for, the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton? Doubts have only grown since. When the Republicans defend a Republican president, that’s normal. When the Republicans defend a disloyal president, that’s different. In defending disloyalty, they risk appearing disloyal. That’s a political context in which a patriotic Republican, perhaps John Kasich or Jeff Flake, would see incentive to enter the arena in order to save the Republican Party from itself.
A challenger almost certainly can’t win, but history tells us that incumbents who defeat same-party challengers go on to lose the general election. That’s what happened with Presidents Ford, Carter and the elder Bush. I suspect this weighs heavily on Lindsey Graham. Sure, the senator might be compromised, as critics allege. What explains his heel-turn from antagonist to champion? More likely, though, is everything that Graham says is an effort to stonewall a Republican from challenging Trump.
That incentive is so great Graham is willing to shed his reputation as a “constitutional conservative. Last week, he called for the president to declare a national emergency when there is no such thing. In declaring a national emergency, Trump might be able to escape the shutdown fight while saving face, thus preventing the Republican base from smelling weakness, thus minimizing intra-party incentives to challenge him. If Republicans undercut Trump, Graham warned last week, “that’s the end of his presidency and the end of our party, and we deserve to be punished if we give in now.”
Republicans are listening and acting, even if that compromises integrity. CNN asked Ron Johnson what he thinks of a Post report showing there’s no transcript of Trump’s private meetings with Vladimir Putin. The senator confirmed with his response Democratic allegations that the GOP is putting party over country. Trump, he said, “has unorthodox means but he is president of the United States. It’s pretty much up to him in terms of who he wants to read into his conversations with world leaders.”
So it seems there are two camps. On the one hand are those growing in number who see a weak president threatening to bring down the party. On the other hand are those who believe that saving the party means saving Trump. Both camps might be right, in fact, and both might lose in the end. Colliding, however, may be inevitable.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.