It’s three days since House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler released his list of 81 Trumpland names he wants to ask questions of, and we’ve seen enough to know generally how Republicans are going to respond to these inquiries: With rage, but a particular kind of rage—one that masks their complete panic at the recognition of where all this could lead.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ howling Monday night response to Nadler set the tone: A “disgraceful and abusive investigation” of “tired, false allegations,” and a lot more where that came from, including the socialist charge and also “killing babies.” More recently, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went on Sean Hannity's show and compared intelligence panel chairman Adam Schiff to Joseph McCarthy (noting helpfully that he was no relation).
These and other responses show where we’re headed: the Republicans are in obvious panic, and before this is all over, they’re going to turn this into one of the ugliest episodes in this country’s history.
The Republican game plan is twofold. First, nail down the base; make sure they’re in a constant state of fury. This is what Sean Hannity is for. Second, keep independents confused enough that they don’t blame Donald Trump for the most grotesque attack on the Constitution in the country’s history but instead blame both sides for partisan bickering that they can’t quite sort through.
That explains the rage. But here’s the panic part.
The panic part is that I bet they all know, deep down, that Trump might be guilty of everything people say he’s guilty of. Start with this notion. If you would have asked Sanders or McCarthy or Lindsey Graham or any of them five years ago what they thought of Trump, I’d bet my mortgage that they’d have said, in no special order: a coarse buffoon; a shady New Yorker tied up with crooks and mobsters; a political illiterate; and, by those to whom that really matters, a horrible Christian.
And it follows from that set of assumptions that, again deep down, they fear the absolute worst, despite all the public avowals to the contrary. They issue those avowals to stay in the president’s good stead, like those T-Mobile losers who racked up those ginormous Trump Hotel bills in the hopes of currying Dear Leader’s favor during merger talks.
But they know. They know what a gangster the man is. They know, I’d bet, that we don’t have the slightest idea yet what this man has done in his life, the crimes he may have committed in the past and the crimes he may well be committing right now.
Take as an example the hotel and the broader issue of emoluments. I was on TV the other day with Ari Melber, and he went off on a very smart riff. The point was that we have absolutely no idea what Trump (and family) may have done here because no president in history has ever been anywhere near this brazen.
Imagine, he offered, that Bill Clinton or Barack Obama had announced they were going to continue their law practices while president in the evening hours. There would have been howls of protest. And rightly so, of course. But neither of them was brazen enough to do so or probably even think it.
Now, we have a president who is brazen enough to think and do anything. But it’s so overwhelmingly brazen we can’t even wrap our brains around it. As the Beast’s Michael Daly reported, and then the Times followed, Trump has been sitting there in the Oval Office writing Trump business checks, to Michael Cohen and others. What kind of money is he making, and from whom, and how is all that possibly compromising him?
We have no idea. But if these investigations really get off the ground, we’ll have a good idea. What we learn might not be shocking. But there’s at least a 50 percent chance it’ll be really really bad, and I’d say a 20 percent chance that it’ll be mind-blowing and clearly illegal.
And that’s “just” emoluments. This week, Jane Mayer showed us that Trump tried in essence to kill CNN by blocking its parent company’s merger (a judge ultimately ruled against a Justice Department request along those lines). That alone is grounds for impeachment, as Max Boot argued. And there is so much more.
So Republicans know that we might yet learn many staggering things about Trump. But they also know what all scoundrels know. Deny it all and turn it back on your accusers. Trump himself is the master of all this, of course. Don’t merely deny that you groped women. Invite Kathleen Willey to the debate. That’s the playbook.
And for God’s sake, admit nothing. If you admit even a little bit, then all you’re doing is opening the door to bigger admissions later. And here’s the thing: With regard to Trump, Republicans surely know deep down just how awful the truth (actually the many truths) about his behavior past and present might be. And that knowledge means precisely that they have to build the stone wall even higher and thicker.
Rudy Giuliani said it months ago: Our jury is public opinion. They know they can’t really win. A poll just out Wednesday found that 64 percent believe Trump committed crimes before he was president, and 45 percent believe he’s committed crimes as president, as those canceled checks would suggest he has. The party can’t win with those numbers. But if they can keep that 45 from rising, they can fight to a draw. And in a draw, Trump can conceivably get reelected.
That means it’s the Democrats’ job to get that 45 up to 55. Because then Trump’s toast. And the Republicans know it. And if he’s toast, they’re toast. They will say and do anything they need to say and do to keep it from happening. Charges of McCarthyism, from someone named McCarthy or not, are just the beginning.