The frantic pace of news about Trump’s attempts to solicit foreign interference in the U.S. election hasn’t slowed since the launch of the formal impeachment inquiry. The House released damning transcripts of texts between U.S. diplomats that describe withholding congressionally appropriated aid to the Ukraine in order to force an investigation into Hunter Biden. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney were all subpoenaed. On Sunday, a second whistleblower emerged who allegedly has firsthand knowledge of the Ukraine call in question. As the evidence continues to build, Republicans are effectively trapped: If they defy Trump, they enrage their base, which still supports Trump in large numbers. But if they defend Trump, they are binding themselves to his scandals, and they have no idea how deep this goes. And while their steps away from Trump are still tentative, some seem to be betting that what is yet to come in the scandals is worse than the wrath of the GOP base.
Cracks in the Republicans’ united defense of Trump are showing up among GOP politicians. Three Republican senators have publicly condemned Trump’s request on the White House lawn for China to investigate Joe Biden. On October 4, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) tweeted that Trump’s “brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling” and “politically motivated.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said “the president made a big mistake by asking China to get involved in investigating a political opponent,” calling it “completely inappropriate.” And Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) also chastised Trump for his comments, saying he shouldn’t look to the Chinese government, but to “American courts.” And two Republican governors publicly support an impeachment inquiry into Trump: Phil Scott of Vermont and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.
Other Republican senators, while not condemning Trump’s actions, have stood up for the intelligence community whistleblower. Trump tweeted “I deserve to meet my accuser” and threatened the whistleblower, calling them “almost a spy” and suggesting that they should be punished for treason. A few days later, on October 1, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) rebuked Trump, saying, “This person appears to have followed the whistleblower protection laws and ought to be heard out and protected.” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also stressed that “whistleblowers should be protected” when faced with a constituent asking, “Where is the line? …your silence is supporting him, by not standing up,” a comment met with applause by others at the town hall.
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Then there are Republicans trying to have it both ways, by talking tough but then walking it back, or flailing back and forth between opposite approaches. On September 27, it appeared that GOP Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nevada) was in favor of an impeachment inquiry, saying of the Ukraine scandal, “Let’s put it through the process and see what happens.” Following headlines that he was the first GOP member to do so, he walked it back, tweeting “I do not support an ‘impeachment inquiry’… despite the media’s claims.” On September 29, after Trump quoted a supporter who warned of a civil war if he’s impeached, Republican Congressman Adam Kinziger condemned the statement as “beyond repugnant.” On October 3, Kinziger downplayed the split, telling reporters that he doesn’t support impeachment and has a “good relationship” with Trump.
Of all the Republicans walking a strange line on Trump condemnation, Senator Ron Johnson has been the hardest to pin down, due to his ever-changing reactions. On September 30, Johnson said Trump changed the presidency and “not necessarily toward the positive.” But on October 3, Johnson defended Trump’s call to China to investigate Biden, saying, “I don’t think there’s anything improper” about the remarks. The very next day, the senator told the Wall Street Journal that he learned of a quid pro quo around Ukraine from diplomat Gordon Sondland. But on October 6, during a contentious interview on Meet the Press, the senator said that when he spoke to Trump about the quid pro quo, Trump “adamantly denied” it. Johnson also noted that he did not trust the CIA or the FBI on these matters. Johnson appears to be testing the political winds by whipsawing between defending Trump and throwing him under the bus — the political equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.
While Republican politicians have been equivocating on their stance toward Trump’s admitted and alleged crimes, right wing-media outlets that are usually more sycophantic toward Trump have been more direct in their condemnation of him.
Conservative radio host Erick Erickson tweeted a hypothetical campaign ad, showing how Trump using the White House to “pressure foreign governments to target his political rivals” was making him vulnerable in swing districts. In another tweet, Erickson questioned if Trump should step aside for VP Mike Pence. Fox News host and usually intractable Trump sycophant Tucker Carlson co-wrote a piece about the Trump-Zelensky call saying “there’s no way to spin this.”
Philip Klein, the executive editor of the conservative magazine The Washington Examiner, wrote, “As President Trump keeps talking, he makes it more and more difficult for his supporters to mount an actual defense of his underlying behavior.”
When Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) argued to the press that Trump wasn’t serious when asking China to investigate Biden, the conservative publication The National Review didn’t buy it, writing, “Rubio’s defense doesn’t make any sense” because “the president is quite plainly saying in public that foreign governments should investigate the Bidens, and he’s not joking.”
While there are these signs of growing opposition to Trump within the Republican establishment, the base, for now, is mostly sticking with him. The attention brought by the formal impeachment inquiry appears to be shifting public opinion overall in favor of impeachment: support of impeachment jumped nearly twenty points among Democrats, increasing from 73 percent support on September 25 to 90 percent support on September 30, according to Quinnipiac polling. Independents’ opposition to impeachment dropped 10 points over the same time period (58 percent opposed down to half opposed). But Republicans have only moved three points: On September 25, 95 percent of Republicans opposed impeachment. On September 30, it was 92 percent opposed. So, while there are also signs of a minor increase in anti-Trump sentiment within Republican polling, they are quite small compared to the leaps in anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats and Independents. This is precisely the calculus the GOP is grappling with as it decides how to react to the ongoing flood of bad news for Trump.
Trump constantly telegraphs his own fears through his Twitter attacks. He’s afraid of other Republicans turning on him, as evidenced by his tweets attacking Romney on October 5. He’s afraid of more constituents criticizing their Republican members of Congress, as evidenced by him elevating a false claim that the grassroots organization Indivisible, that has an impressive 3,800 local chapters, is merely an “astroturf” group (when in fact it is an organization with more than 1 million members that advocate for progressive policies through regular constituent engagement). And he’s worried about polls turning against him, a fear that is fully on display with his frequent tweeting of bogus or misrepresented polls.
But the stress isn’t only getting to Trump. Last week CNN reached out to dozens of GOP lawmakers for their response to Trump asking China to investigate his political opponent. Sixty Republicans responded with silence. And on September 30, following questioning about the whistleblower complaint, Sen. Perdue snapped at reporters, “Let me answer the goddamned question.”
For most of the year, slow-walking impeachment had been the province of Democratic leadership and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Now, it’s the Republicans in purple districts trying to run out the clock — laying low, making vague statements at best, and hoping no one can divine their actual positions. It’s a truly weak political position to be in. What it will mean for the Republican Party in 2020 and beyond remains to be seen — but it doesn’t look promising for the GOP.