As the country awaits whatever conclusions Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation brings, the most important question in politics may be whether there is any red line Trump could cross and lose significant party support. Four and a half decades ago, Republicans stuck with Richard Nixon until incontrovertible evidence of his crimes emerged. Democrats never abandoned Bill Clinton because they believed his misdeeds weren’t impeachable. What is the red line for a contemporary GOP increasingly built around a personality cult? I put that question to a dozen Republicans in the House and Senate, a mix from across the ideological spectrum and from every region of the country. The conversations revealed a lot about the Trump GOP, but the red line, with respect to Trump’s behavior generally, or his conduct specific to the Mueller probe, was vanishingly thin and difficult to detect. And every time you think you see it—pee tape, porn-star liaison, erratic diplomacy, threats to fire Mueller—it keeps moving. As Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona put it, “I don’t know that there is one.”
Flake never supported Trump and has been the president’s most consistent critic in Congress, though one who still votes for much of his agenda. When Flake was deciding whether to run for reelection this year, one of his political consultants told him there was only one path: “You’ve got to be okay with Trump’s policies or be quiet about them and be okay with his behavior or be quiet about it.” Flake decided to retire instead.
Jenkins, the congresswoman from Kansas, relayed a conversation she recently had with a factory owner back home, who told her that while the guys on his shop floor “hate” Trump—they are from the Bible Belt, after all, she noted—“they love what he’s doing.” She then offered the most honest explanation I’ve heard for this phenomenon. “It’s kind of like supporting your favorite team and there’s a talented trash-talking personality on the other team,” she said. “That player is the worst human being on the face of the earth, but if that same talented player is on our team, well, you know, they’re our team, so we give him a pass.”
Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, was known as one of Trump’s most vociferous critics. I caught Graham on his cell phone while he was visiting Iraq in July. During the 2016 campaign, he called Trump “a kook,” adding, “I think he is unfit for office.” Graham is now much more diplomatic, offering himself up as a kind of translator between the #NeverTrump movement and the party’s base. On the plus side for him were the judges, the tax cuts, the fight against ISIS, and the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. On the other side were Trump’s “uncertainty about our commitment” to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria; his trade policy; and his lack of seriousness about Russian meddling in American elections. “This constant minimizing of Putin and his agenda—very problematic.”
Those were his toughest words for Trump. I was surprised how much he was soft-selling his well-known disagreements with the man on foreign policy, especially Trump’s retreat from defending our democratic allies. I asked him if the American president was still the leader of the free world. He paused for five seconds before telling me, “America First is one or two things. It’s an understanding that we’re a unique country and it’s about burden sharing,” he said. “You gotta remember, he won. I think when the president talks of how other countries are taking advantage of us, we’re fighting their wars, we’re spending too much for their defense, that resonates with people.” He never did answer the question.
Earlier this year, Graham made the case that if Trump fired Mueller, “it would be the end of President Trump’s presidency.” I asked if he still believed that about Mueller. He let out a deep sigh. “He’s done such a number on this guy, I don’t know,” he said, referring to Trump’s attacks on Mueller’s credibility.
Leonard Lance, a congressman from New Jersey, was one Republican, albeit a moderate, who volunteered a red line: “Personal collusion by Trump with the Russians during the campaign.” But if Republicans keep the House and the Senate this fall, Trump will have a political fortress protecting him in Washington. That prospect has led a few anti-Trump Republicans, like Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, to openly support a Democratic takeover of Congress. In their minds, there is no red line for the GOP. I came to the same conclusion after my hours of interviews.
Conservative Trump critics fear becoming the next Sanford and stay quiet—what Flake and others call the “don’t poke the bear” mind-set. Meanwhile, many of the moderate anti-Trump Republicans are leaving office. Congressman Ryan Costello, a Republican from Pennsylvania who decided to quit (redistricting gave him a bluer constituency), said, “If I were running for reelection, every single time that I saw on the TV screen that the president was going to hold another rally, I’d be like, ‘Oh, fuck!’ Because he’s going to say fifty things that aren’t accurate.”
They're leaving rather than opposing him, or stopping him, or attacking him. They are retiring in near-record numbers. They know they're done in November. They're going to let the Democrats deal with him, because the GOP doesn't have the courage, and because nearly 90% of Republican voters love Trump anyway.
And so it goes.