Late last Saturday night, Donald Trump took to twitter to announce that next year’s G-7 meeting would not be held at the Trump National Doral, the Trump property in Miami. It was an epic and almost immediate climbdown for the President. It’s not that Trump doesn’t usually always fold, it’s that he usually portrays his retreat as an historic victory. His capitulation to Kim Jong-Un saved the world from nuclear war. The minor tweaks to NAFTA were described as “the biggest trade deal in the United States history”. In this case, however, there was no victory, only a perfunctory admission of defeat.
If we are to believe the reporting, the reason for Trump’s ignominious retreat was that this brazen violation of the Emoluments Clause was even a bridge too far for Republicans in Congress and some of his propagandists in the media. On Fox, Andrew Napolitano declared, “This is about as direct and profound a violation of the Emoluments Clause as one could create”. According to the New York Times, “The president first heard the criticism of his choice of the Doral watching TV, where even some Fox News personalities were disapproving. By Saturday afternoon, his concerns had deepened when he put in a call to Camp David, where Mr. Mulvaney was hosting moderate congressional Republicans for a discussion of issues facing them, including impeachment, and was told the consensus was he should reverse himself.”
Now every explanation of Trump’s actions coming from the White House should be taken with a grain of salt. And, in contrast to those reported moderates at Camp David, there were certainly plenty of Republicans who were perfectly happy to humiliate themselves in supporting the President’s original decision. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, the GOP Senators from Florida, were only too happy for business to flow to their state even if it was via a direct and blatant violation of our Constitution, with Scott glibly claiming “There’s no conflict of interest in holding anything in the great state of Florida.” GOP Senator from North Dakota, Kevin Cramer, said Trump’s decision to hold the G7 at Doral showed “tremendous integrity in his boldness and his transparency”. But, in the end, the Times’ explanation does seem like the most plausible explanation for Trump’s almost immediate reversal.
If that truly is the case, then the importance of this moment should not be lost. Republicans in Congress have spent most of the last three years condoning, occasionally with furrowed brows and a pretense of deep concern, a criminal President. For three years, Republicans in Congress have been portrayed as being forced by their base to be publicly supportive of the President while privately expressing their disgust and frustration with his actions. In other words, it may seem that they are simply selfish, spineless cowards who refuse to stand up for our democracy because they are afraid of a Trump tweet and a primary challenge from their right, and some of them certainly are. But we know that they are not cowards and, if the roles were reversed and Hillary Clinton did what Trump had done, they would have impeached her three times over by now. Rather, as the Doral-G7 decision shows quite starkly, Republicans in Congress have far more agency than they would like us to believe and instead have actually been active accomplices to Trump’s crimes. And that refusal to constrain Trump and stand up for our democracy shows that they are purely power-hungry parasites on our democracy who are in the pockets of the plutocrats that fund their criminal party. With the exception of Justin Amash, there is still not a patriot among them.
When Trump fired Comey in order to shut down the Russia investigation, they did nothing. When Trump was determined to have delivered checks to Michael Cohen in the White House as part of a criminal campaign finance conspiracy, they did nothing. When Trump was shown to have obstructed the Mueller investigation on ten occasions, they did nothing. When the White House releases a summary that shows Trump using congressionally authorized funds as part of an effort to extort a foreign government to investigate political rival, they not only do nothing but attempt to censure Adam Schiff for simply paraphrasing the transcript. When the President’s chief of staff admits a quid pro quo with Ukraine but claims the administration does this all the time, they do nothing and even still try to claim there was no quid pro quo or, worse, like Mulvaney, simply claim the quid pro quo is standard procedure. When Trump continually violates the Emoluments Clause by allowing foreign governments and domestic businesses to funnel money to the President through his properties, they do nothing. But when Trump awards himself a no-bid contract to host the G7, it is apparently the straw the breaks the backs of Republicans. The important point here is, the ability to get Trump to reverse the Doral decision shows that Republicans can constrain Trump when they actually collectively decide to do something.
The results of the GOP’s lack of resistance to Trump have been disastrous for our democracy. There is a through line from the concentration camps and the caging of children on our southern border to the greenlighting of the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey. There is a through line from Trump’s white nationalist rhetoric to Charlottesville and the increasing racist and anti-Semitic attacks. There is a through line from the casual dismissal of the crimes enumerated in the Mueller report to the virtual denial of the legitimacy of the Democratic party and congressional oversight. There is a through line from Jared Kushner’s business interests to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. There is a through line from a National Security Adviser who was an agent of a foreign government to Trump’s acquiescence to Erodgan. There is a through line from Trump’s decision not to divest his business to the decision to hold the G7 at Doral. There is a through line from ignoring the Russian hacking of the 2016 election for purely partisan advantage to the attempt to extort Ukraine to investigate Biden. And, to paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, there is a through line from Trump to Putin. Republican lack of resistance to Trump’s abuses has literally been deadly for some immigrant children and communities, for racial and religious minorities, for opponents of the Saudi leadership, for the Ukrainians fighting Russia, and now for the Kurds.
This is not deny that Republicans do feel pressure from their base to support Trump. They are in many ways the victims of their own success in creating an incredibly powerful propaganda machine that generates support for their party by exploiting fear and hatred and allows them to line their plutocratic backers’ pockets while pretending to serve their base. It is no coincidence that the only significant legislation the party was able to pass with two years of total legislative and executive control was an enormous gift to the corporate plutocratic class. But the propaganda machine has now been captured by a cult of personality that not even the party can any longer control.
Republicans will still hide behind their supposed lack of agency to constrain Trump and plead, like powerless serfs, for Democrats to do their dirty work for them. The other day, the conservative never-Trumper pundit Mona Charen tweeted, “I’ve written a harsh column about Elizabeth Warren that will post tomorrow. But my preoccupation is with the malignancy in the Oval Office this minute. Please, Democratic party, pick someone else. It’s kind of important”. Mitt Romney had the gall to blame the sycophancy and complicity of Republicans on the Democrats while still carrying the water for the plutocratic class to which he belongs, saying, “They [Republicans] don’t want to do something which makes it more likely for Elizabeth Warren to become president or for us to lose the Senate. So they don’t want to go out and criticize the leader of our party because they feel that might have the consequence of hurting our country longer term”. Let’s be absolutely clear. If Trump survives until the 2020 election and wins it, it will be almost entirely because Republicans decided to stick with the criminal President and will have very little to do with the Democratic nominee. As much as Republicans won’t want to admit it, the election will be a referendum on the Trump presidency.
Chuck Todd remarkably asked a pretty prescient question on MTP Daily on Tuesday when he actually inquired if the Republican party still believed in liberal democracy. It appears it may not. A new poll shows that “an astonishing 55% of Republicans who watch Fox News as their primary news source say there is almost nothing Trump could do to lose their approval.” Even among those Republican who don’t watch Fox as the primary news source, almost 30% still agree with that sentiment. Those data points alone show the power of the propaganda machine the GOP has built and how it has been co-opted into a cult of personality and a threat to our democracy. And just to illustrate how much at least the House GOP is on board with that attack on our democracy, they pulled another Brooks Brothers riot in the Capitol yesterday in order to shut down the impeachment inquiry, additionally illustrating their fealty to Trump, who perhaps even ordered the demonstration, and their lack of concern for actual national security except when they can use it as a cudgel in partisan attacks.
Michelle Goldberg was on All In with Chris Hayes on Tuesday night and summarized the current situation quite succinctly about why she believes Republicans should be demanding Trump’s resignation, saying, “[I]t is what they should be doing because otherwise what we’re facing is an admission of a total breakdown in the rule of law. If he’s not going to be convicted in the Senate, if these crimes that have been revealed, including Gordon Sondland’s perjury, are going to be referred to a Justice Department headed by Bill Barr, who kind of corruptly refuses to recuse and is quashing all of these investigations, the admission is that we are past any kind of democracy and in a situation of pure authoritarianism”. Perhaps just to illustrate how far we’ve come toward that situation, Trump’s lawyer actually argued in federal court that he should get immunity while in office from not only prosecution but investigation if he were to commit first degree murder. That immunity should also be applied to Trump’s businesses, which he has claimed he has no interest in before other courts and the American people, as well as third parties involved with those businesses.
During Watergate, Howard Baker’s famous question was “what did the President know and when did he know it?”. The answer doomed Nixon. Today, the question Republicans must answer is whether it is acceptable to illegally use congressionally authorized funds to extort a foreign country to take active steps to investigate your domestic political opponent and influence an upcoming election. There really is no good answer. The days of reckoning for congressional Republicans, especially GOP Senators, are fast approaching. We’ve just seen they can stand up to Trump when they collectively want to. What remains to be seen is whether they will risk their own personal political power when confronted with a choice between authoritarianism and the rule of law. Frighteningly, the future of our country, our democracy, depends on them.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on October 24, 2019.