When President Donald Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen testified last week that his former boss was a “racist” and “con man” who routinely skirts the law, Republicans showed little interest in following up on his claims.
They shrugged when Trump called murderous dictator Kim Jong Un a “real leader” and once again elevated the North Korean leader on the world stage.
And faced with a vote on Trump’s legally contested declaration of a national emergency at the Mexican border, just 13 of 197 House Republicans opposed him.
Acquiescence to Trump is now the defining trait of the GOP more than two years into his presidency — overwhelming and at times erasing principles that conservatives viewed as the party’s foundation for more than a half-century.
Trump’s ownership of the GOP was on vivid display again Saturday, when the president appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland, an annual gathering that has transformed into a raucous celebration of Trump, featuring propaganda-style art and a speaker who declared that the president was “chosen by God.” Standing before an exuberant crowd chanting “Trump!” and “U-S-A,” Trump spent two hours railing against the “failed ruling class,” calling the special counsel’s Russia investigation “bullshit” and portraying his 2016 election as a historic moment in global history.
“We are reversing decades of blunders and betrayals,” Trump declared, before asserting that he was only joking in 2016 when he asked Russia to release Hillary Clinton’s private e-mails. “Lock her up! Lock her up!” CPAC attendees roared at the mention of the former Democratic presidential nominee.
In interviews over the past week, Republicans on Capitol Hill offered an array of reasons for their unflinching loyalty to Trump as the 2020 campaign begins to take shape: a deep-seated fear of his pull with their supporters in primary races; fraying consensus about conservatism as nationalism takes hold of the party, and shared partisan disdain for Trump’s perceived enemies in the news media and the Democratic Party.
“We’re not going to turn on our own and make the Democrats happy,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is up for re-election in 2020. “We don’t see any benefit in fracturing, but we do see a lot to lose.”
Republicans say Trump’s overhaul of the federal judiciary and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices, along with the passage of the GOP’s tax law, have helped bind the party together through bouts of turbulence — from the loss of their House majority to the longest government shutdown in history to the many developments related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
All of it has left Trump firmly in control. Most potential 2020 primary challengers sit on the sidelines as the GOP establishment rallies around Trump’s re-election. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who once gave Trump a jar of hand-selected Starbursts candy as a gift, is a Trump booster and confidant. Former GOP foes in the Senate, such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, flatter him and are regulars at his golf courses.
“They fetishize this nonconservative in the Oval Office because it’s tribal,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican strategist and Trump critic. “It’s us versus them, we’re right and they’re evil, and it’s created this Trump cult that dominates the party.”
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a Democrat who fended off Trump’s attempts to unseat him in last year’s midterm election, said of Republicans: “I don’t understand why they allow all of this stuff to go on. I would bet money two years ago — 20 years ago — that this would never happen. I’m not sure Watergate would be prosecuted under the conditions we have today.”
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, publicly acknowledged what many Republicans say privately: The GOP is wholeheartedly accepting behavior and policies from Trump that would spark outrage from a Democratic president, particularly Trump’s attempt to use executive power in defiance of Congress to secure funding for a wall along the Mexican border. “It’d be a little different,” Simpson said with a chuckle. “If President Obama had done the national emergency, Republicans would have gone crazy.”
Nonetheless, most Republicans backed Trump’s move last month, seeing it as a political exit ramp as Trump flailed during the latest shutdown fight. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged Trump not to do it, only to eventually accept it. When House Democrats forced a vote Tuesday on legislation to overturn Trump’s declaration, just 6 percent of House Republicans dared to break publicly with him.
One defector was Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a libertarian-leaning Republican who is well known for clashing with leadership. Trump backers in his ruby-red district were incensed. “I’m feeling it right now,” Massie said. “Lots of phone calls for voting that way. But it’s OK, because my district knows me. For those who don’t have that brand, it’s more dangerous for them to try and take an independent path, because they’ll be seen as being against the president.”
Opposition among Senate Republicans has been more visible. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., facing a difficult re-election race next year, has said he would vote to curb Trump’s use of emergency powers in this instance, worrying that a Democratic president could “exploit” those powers in the future. Three GOP moderates — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have also voiced opposition to Trump’s declaration and called on him to withdraw his plan or risk a rebellion.
But Trump had an ominous warning for those GOP critics in an interview last week with Fox News’ Sean Hannity: “I think they put themselves at great jeopardy.”
On foreign policy — long the bastion of Republican hawks who have been hostile to dictators and supportive of global institutions — Trump has been cast as a GOP hero, despite his feuds with allies, protectionist trade policies and chummy engagement with such autocrats as Kim, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
When Trump declared after a summit with Kim in Hanoi last week that the North Korean leader was not responsible for the death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, most Republicans stayed mum. “He’s doing a hell of a job as commander in chief,” Graham said at CPAC on Thursday.
Trump’s near daily dismissal of the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” has become another GOP refrain. Trump’s elected allies, such as Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, have buoyed the cause, repeatedly questioning the integrity of the Justice Department and FBI in the process.
Partisan loyalty to an embattled president has plenty of historical precedents. Many Republicans stood by Richard Nixon during Watergate and by Ronald Reagan during the Iran-contra scandal. Bill Clinton was supported by most Democrats even as he was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Any high-profile voices in the party objecting to Trump are increasingly scattered or silent, while the “Never Trump” faction from the 2016 campaign has all but fallen into obscurity.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who served as a foil to Trump and called him “dangerous,” died last August. Former President George H.W. Bush died last November, and his son, George W. Bush, shuns the spotlight. Other onetime foes have retreated, such as Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has quarreled with Trump at times but has mostly stayed out of the spotlight.
Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld has expressed interest in running against Trump in the GOP primary, but he is little known nationally. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich continues to toy with the idea but has not committed to a bid. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is also intrigued, but has said an insurgency would be futile unless Trump’s GOP support crumbles.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in January, 75 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents approve of Trump’s performance in office.
The Republican National Committee, led by Romney niece and Trump ally Ronna McDaniel, is using aggressive measures to stave off any possible primary threat. RNC members passed a resolution giving Trump the party’s “undivided support” and effectively merged with Trump’s campaign.
“They will lose horribly,” McDaniel said at CPAC about Trump’s potential Republican primary challengers.
Cohen offered words of caution for the president’s defenders during his House testimony Wednesday. “I did the same thing that you’re doing now,” he said, addressing Republicans on the panel. “And I can only warn people, the more people who follow Mr. Trump as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”