50 Ways to Leave Your President

The GOP has finally started to break up with Trump.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Someday, August 2017 will be known for its similarity to every single movie of the beach-blanket breakup genre: painful and slow but inexorable. Even without the bikinis and the blankets, it’s pretty clear that the GOP is contemplating ending things with the president. There will be sand. And crying. But it seems to be coming.

Already, the Republican Party itself has been all but banished from the White House. We are now seeing significant institutions slink away from supporting the White House. One Trump tactic—such as with the Boy Scout’s recent disavowal—is to just lie about the fissures. But that only leads to the slinker to slink further and faster. Republican lawmakers—notably those without impending elections—are laying down markers in defense of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, special counsel Robert Mueller, and maybe even the rule of law. It was announced on Thursday that a bipartisan group in the Senate is introducing legislation to inoculate Mueller from potential presidential attempts to fire him and obstruct his investigation. Three Republican senators mustered their political capital to kill an Affordable Care Act repeal last week. Others broke openly with the president over his proposed ban on transgender troops, moved to drastically limit Trump’s ability to remove Russia sanctions, and are pushing back against Trump’s efforts to destroy Obamacare unilaterally. On Monday, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake published an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, in which he called out his own party for ignoring “an executive branch in chaos” and “the strange specter of an American president’s seeming affection for strongmen and authoritarians.” On Tuesday, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott put it this way: “We work for the American people. We don’t work for the president.” On Thursday, after President Trump tweeted that Congress was to blame for the failing relationship with Russia, Scott snapped back: “Don’t blame Congress. Blame the Russians.”

Each of these moves has had its detractors from the left, who describe the fissures and cracks as some version of “all talk, no action.” But every instance has represented an aggregated action of a sort; a straining away from the toxic Oobleck that pours forth from Trump’s White House and forever tarnishes anything it touches. It sort of looks like one undifferentiated breakup, but there are different flavors to each. To me, it is all very reminiscent of the different options offered in Paul Simon’s classic song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” The song’s lyrics serve as a useful taxonomy for Republicans possibly quitting a president they never much cared for in the first place:

Slip Out the Back, Jack

Hey, whatever happened to all those prominent Republicans who never had anything to do with Donald Trump in the first place? I’m not talking about the recently humiliated Reince Priebus, or the less recently humiliated Chris Christie, or the wickedly humiliated Mitt Romney. No, I’m talking about the masses and masses of formerly prominent GOP leaders who have gone virtually silent in the Trump era, folks who consistently refuse to support the rampant idiocy that transpires daily from the White House. I’m thinking of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush, the Never Trumpers, the party establishment, the party itself, all sliding away, mostly quietly, but with the occasional parting shot or putdown. These folks are not always in open war with the White House, but more and more, they’re just turning out the lights and heading out the back door.

Drop Off the Key, Lee

Then there’s the case of the shiny young Sens. Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake. Listen to their vociferous calls for increased statesmanship, good governance, civic virtue, an educated citizenry, truthfulness, and a return to shared values. Of course, as my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley has trenchantly observed, Sasse’s performative language of outrage at the ugliness of Trumpism has been matched with virtually no act of meaningful legislative resistance. And Josh Barro made precisely the same point about Flake’s recent cri du coeur. To be sure, Flake is pitiless in his criticism of both Trump and the current GOP but is less than clear about how he proposes to act on that. This mode of breaking up with Trump can be written off as the cowardly teen boy approach. Cut and run, but with a side of snark. Still, even this wasn’t happening three weeks ago!

Hop On the Bus, Gus

There is also the “do something but don’t talk much” tactic, the mirror image to the Sasse-Flake strategy. These are the guys, like Sen. Chuck Grassley, who aren’t giving fancy speeches or hawking books but are quietly using their legislative authority to undermine the Trump administration when it gets out of hand. Here we have Grassley, for instance, talking about subpoenas for Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort if they refuse to testify openly about collusion with Russia. Or Grassley warning Trump that he has no room on his Judiciary Committee schedule to confirm a new attorney general if Trump opts to fire Jeff Sessions. Then there’s Thursday’s announcement about the special counsel–protecting legislation, quietly backed earlier by Sen. Lindsey Graham. Trump has not much cared for these moves. It seems like old school legislators have realized that where their interests diverge from the president’s, they’re better off simply ignoring him, perhaps de-fanging him, and moving on.

Don’t Need to Be Coy, Roy

Finally, there are the folks who seem to have no compunction about just breaking with the president. Sens. John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski have gone further than mere statements of discontent and dismay and seem to be affirmatively willing to punch the president in the mouth once in a while. (Murkowski, it could be said, was actually punching back after sloppy threats from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to hurt her state of Alaska.) A former adviser to McCain recently remarked that the senator was trying, with his vote against Trumpcare, to send “a clear signal that what’s happening in the White House is not normal and what’s happening in the Congress is not normal.”

None of this may actually matter all that much in the long run. Republican leaders who are currently contemplating fooling around with legit constitutional democracy behind Trump’s back may come crawling home to him in tears if their base deserts them, or if it turns out that the voters simply don’t care about the issues on which they have staked their newfound independence. And when Trump detractors performs even a teensy feint at independent thinking they are getting the sort of hero worship and celebrity cult usually reserved for Trump himself. But in the immortal words of Paul Simon—the songwriter, not the senator—the American people would like to help Republican legislators in their struggle to be free. And they don’t need 50 ways to quit Donald Trump. One will do just fine.