The Trump Dump

When will congressional Republicans abandon the president?

Ben Sasse, Donald Trump, and Paul Ryan
Sen. Ben Sasse (left) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (right) have yet to disown Trump.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joshua Roberts/Reuters, Yuri Gripas/Reuters, Joshua Roberts/Reuters.

These are dark times in Trumpworld. Politico reports that President Trump “is using his relatively light schedule to watch TV and fume about the latest scandal,” which makes him sound very relatable but also very sad. The New York Times, meanwhile, offers a portrait of a White House crippled by infighting and completely unable to keep its story straight in the wake of new revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s apparent eagerness to cooperate—some would say collude—with the Russian government to give his father’s presidential campaign a boost.

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I have no insight into what the Trump clan will do to contain the damage in the days to come. What I’m more interested in is how Republicans in Congress might react to the ongoing Trump meltdown. Will they abandon the president en masse? Will they stick with him until the bitter end? I’d divvy GOP lawmakers up into three main categories: those who see themselves as potential Trump successors; swing staters who fear for their political survival; and the GOP leadership in the House and Senate, who care first and foremost about passing legislation.

A short while ago, I argued that ambitious Republicans should start laying the groundwork for a 2020 campaign right now. The obvious counterargument is that even contemplating a primary challenge against Trump is hilariously premature, as he continues to enjoy the support of the vast majority of Republican voters. That’s certainly true, and it remains a decent reason to hang back.

As the events of the past few days remind us, however, it’s not clear the president is all that deft when it comes to handling a bona fide political crisis, and tying yourself too closely to Trump’s political fortunes is looking less and less like a safe bet. And besides, could anyone blame a politician for setting himself or herself up as a Plan B for Republicans in the event of presidential self-immolation? The challenge is that if you’re going to run for the GOP presidential nomination, you’ll need to win over people who at one point or another supported Trump. That means there might be such a thing as being too eager to abandon the president outright. The decision to throw Trump under the bus will have to be made more in sorrow than in anger.

Consider the tack taken by Ben Sasse, the youthful senator from Nebraska, who’s already being asked about his presidential ambitions, and who is already artfully dodging questions about his intentions. On one level, Sasse has been quite quick to condemn Trump, rapping him across the knuckles for intemperate tweets and cozying up to Vladimir Putin, and going so far as to describe the president’s attacks on the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe as “beneath the dignity of your office.” But he’s not sticking his neck out by, say, calling for impeachment.

How might Sasse and others in the same boat, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, start ramping up their criticism? Raising questions about the propriety of keeping Jared Kushner as a senior adviser to the president might be a good place to start. Sticking up for Robert Mueller in his role as special counsel is a no-brainer. And if Trump and his allies can’t right the ship in a week or two, and if the president starts bleeding GOP support? That’s when the gloves can come off.

Now, say you’re a backbencher who cares about nothing more than getting re-elected. Has the time come to distance yourself from the president? If your seat is even remotely competitive, the answer is clearly yes. There is a reason why Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican representing a swing district in New York’s Long Island, felt the need to scold Donald Trump Jr. in a tweet. To have any hope of winning re-election, Zeldin knew he had to demonstrate some modicum of independence. This is part of a larger pattern: Many of Trump’s most frequent GOP critics, among them Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, are up for re-election in 2018 in states where Democrats are gaining ground. Mind you, many anti-Trump Republicans in Congress are as motivated by ideological or character-based objections to Trump as they are by political calculation. But don’t be surprised if Republicans representing purple and blue states are the ones who are keenest to take Trump to task.

Then there are the Republicans, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who are primarily focused on passing legislation that will move the country in what they take to be a more conservative direction. The goal of pushing through the GOP’s long-standing domestic policy priorities has given Republicans reason to put aside any concerns they might have had about Trump.

By now, however, it’s become clear that an understaffed and inexperienced Trump White House is incapable of knocking heads together and moving the GOP agenda forward. To the contrary, mixed messages from the president (one day the GOP’s Obamacare overhaul is terrific, the next day it’s inexcusably mean) and the constant whiff of scandal have stopped the GOP agenda dead in its tracks. A cynic might say that Trump’s incompetence could be a blessing in disguise, as passing unpopular legislation could bite Republicans in the behind come 2018. But that’s small comfort to GOP lawmakers who care most of all about having legislative accomplishments to crow about.

Will these Republicans leave Trump twisting in the wind? I’m not so sure. The deeper problem facing those who care about pushing through the GOP agenda is that it’s not all that popular, Trump or no Trump. A weak Trump has at least some reason to play ball with a GOP Congress. He doesn’t have much of a substantive agenda of his own, and he’s in no position to cut deals with Democrats. If Trump is ensnared in ever more investigations, or if he is somehow removed from office, the Ryan-McConnell agenda may well be doomed. That means Ryan and McConnell will likely prefer the devil they know, at least for now.