It’s long been an open secret in Washington that many of the career Republicans who fawn over President Donald Trump in public have nothing good to say about him in private. Former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake recently estimated that 35 Republican senators would vote to remove Trump from office in an impeachment trial — if they could vote in private.
The cloak of privacy was dramatically pulled off one GOP senator, Mitt Romney, on Sunday when he admitted being behind the anonymous “Pierre Delecto” Twitter account and its “likes” of tweets critical of Trump. Though Romney has been one of the few senators willing to criticize the president openly on his behavior toward Ukraine, which triggered the impeachment inquiry, the broader antipathy expressed via his secret account is telling.
As is the more widespread public agreement among the Utah senator’s fellow Republicans with his lambasting of Trump’s hasty, disorganized and chaotic decision to withdraw U.S. troops in Syria — while giving Turkey the green light to move into the area and ethnically cleanse the Kurds who have been fighting the Islamic State militant group for us. The day before Romney took to the Senate floor to denounce the move, 129 of 197 House Republicans voted for a measure disapproving of Trump’s Syria retreat.
For those at home keeping track of the number of times a significant majority of congressional Republicans have bucked the president before the Syria vote, it’s a resounding … once. (That time, it was over the 2017 sanctions measure retaliating against the Russian government for interfering in the 2016 election, which passed in July 2017 with a veto-proof majority despite the administration’s opposition.) The Syria measure is a toothless nonbinding resolution, but it’s a good start.
It just so happens that this unprecedented schism between elected Republicans and the president is occurring as the Democrat-controlled House conducts an impeachment inquiry. This indicates there are cracks in Trump’s firewall that the impeachment process is exacerbating — creating an opportunity for Democrats to get the crucial GOP support they need for the inquiry, and any trial for removing the president that follows, if they act reasonably and responsibly.
There’s no guarantee that the Syria breach will translate into more Republican backing for the impeachment inquiry, which is still focusing predominantly on Ukraine. But there’s a chance. According to a poll earlier this month, almost 30 percent of Republicans favor the impeachment inquiry— a 21-point spike since July — and almost 20 percent favor a vote to remove the president.
That could create a squeeze for Republicans. From one side, the benefits of standing by Trump diminish with every shameful policy step like the surrender in Syria. From the other side, the costs of supporting him rise as a larger share of Republicans sour on him.
This pattern may be emerging already. According to some reports, it was criticism from Republicans such as Reps. Peter King and Tom Cole that convinced Trump to abandon his self-dealing plans to host the G-7 meeting at his struggling Miami resort. This skirmish with down-ballot Republicans could be an exception to the rule of blind, one-way obedience — or it could be the beginning of something much larger.
Republicans in Congress, for starters, have mustered up the courage to go even further than approving the Syria resolution. Rep. Francis Rooney refused to rule outvoting to impeach Trump, saying he was “still thinking about it.” (He later walked back his comments and announced the next day that he wouldn’t seek another term in Congress because he wants to be “a model for term limits.”)
Rep. Adam Kinzinger hasn’t held his fire on Twitter, calling the president’s decision “impulsive” and asking his constituents: “Is this the America you grew up believing in?” He has also repeatedly described Trump statements as “#thingsreaganwouldntsay but @realDonaldTrump did.”
Rep. John Shimkus, a retiring Republican, went so far as to withdraw his support for Trump entirely. He described himself as “heartbroken” and “angry and embarrassed” over the abandonment of America’s allies.
But perhaps most notable is erstwhile-Trump-opponent-turned-reliable-lackey Sen. Lindsey Graham, who sharply criticized the Syria withdrawal on the Christian Broadcasting Network: “I am looking for President Trump to change this. I will do anything I can to help him, but I will also become President Trump’s worst nightmare” if he doesn’t. He added, “Don’t be like Obama, be like Reagan.” To an evangelical audience like CBN’s, comparing anyone to former President Barack Obama is the pinnacle of insults.
Evangelical activists have themselves been outspoken on Trump’s actions on Syria, in contrast to most of his previous policy choices. Their public frustration shows the decision has created additional fractures in the president’s base of support at a time he needs all the bolstering he can get.
If brave Republican politicians are willing to announce their opposition to the president in such dramatic and public fashion, it stands to reason that their meeker colleagues feel the same way but won’t say it. What Democrats do next will be key in whether Trump’s GOP critics gain more courage and break with him.
Finding ways to peel off more congressional Republicans should be congressional Democrats’ chief concern. If they are savvy, they have an opportunity to pass articles of impeachment that have bipartisan approval, forcing a trial in the Senate in which every Republican senator will have to take an up-or-down vote.
That’s why this is also a test. As Napoleon is quoted (probably inaccurately) as saying, “Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.” The last thing Democrats should do is make themselves and their agenda seem dangerous and radical to independents and Republican fence-sitters. They should pursue their impeachment inquiry with as much seriousness, dignity, bipartisanship and fairness as possible.
Otherwise, they’ll waste their shot.
- Sarah Longwell is the executive director of Defending Democracy Together and Republicans for the Rule of Law. She is also the publisher of TheBulwark.com.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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