President Donald Trump’s reception at his State of the Union speech—ecstatic to the point of a thunderous chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”—is important for only one reason.
In an otherwise unmemorable night, it is a window into how Trump’s presidency is going to unfold in the coming months: with the slavish defense, indeed, devotion of his party.
What was a hostile takeover of the GOP by an outsider is now a merger, accepted by a group with a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome. Trump can insult the old GOP, threaten to primary them, libel and tweet-shame them and all that has gone to show that they need him more than he needs them.
The normalization of Trump started with the tax bill. When Trump made GOP dreams of permanent tax cuts for the wealthy camouflaged by small and temporary ones for the middle class come true, it’s hard to exaggerate the gratitude they felt. When Sen. Orrin Hatch called him perhaps the “best president” ever in the Rose Garden celebration, he was reflecting the prevailing sentiment. That the individual mandate of Obamacare was destroyed in the process was icing on the cake. With that, they went from questioning his leadership ability and even his mental stability to a willingness to side with him in undermining the country’s most sacred institutions if that what it takes to save him, and therefore, them.
The newfound devotion is crucial given the rough times ahead. Nothing Trump tweets or does—getting funding for a smart, or dumb, wall; becoming consoler-in-chief after a national tragedy as he hinted at a pre-SOTU lunch for TV anchors—will divert attention from the Trump vs. Mueller drama that’s coming to a theater near you. In one form or another Trump is going to have to appear before Mueller where honesty is the best policy under penalty of perjury. At least one son and one son-in-law are witnesses if not targets. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn is testifying reluctantly and former chief strategist Steve Bannon seems happy to sing like a bird if executive privilege doesn’t interfere. Just a cursory look at Trump’s own words and tweets shows obstruction of justice.
This is where supine Republicans come in to undermine the investigation and investigators so as to subvert the rule of law. With Republicans falling in line if not in love, the party of Lincoln is teed up to defend him no matter what as they go about trashing the FBI and Justice Department they used to honor. The trash talk is also coming from key officials like Gen. John Kelly, the sainted chief of staff, who hasn’t brought Trump up to his level but been reduced to that of Trump. Kelly has joined in the effort to find fault with—and the time to directly pressure—law enforcement officials connected to the Russian inquiry. It’s not clear exactly how Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, married to a “loser,” was railroaded into early retirement but Director Christopher Wray let it be known that McCabe left just ahead of an Inspector General’s report critical of his handling of Hilary Clinton’s emails.
The latest moves to protect Trump is playing out with the full backing of Speaker Paul Ryan. He’s in favor of the House intelligence committee chair, Rep. Devin Nunes, publishing classified material cherry-picked to supposedly show that the Justice Department improperly obtained a surveillance order for Carter Page, a former Trump campaign associate and a hapless mark of Russian operatives. And Ryan is fine with Nunes not releasing the full file which would show that this didn’t happen.
There was a time not so long-ago when Paul Ryan called out and demoted Nunes for his clownish nighttime caper to the White House to pick up and then re-deliver so-called secret documents heralded as giving credence to Trump’s lunatic claim that former president Barack Obama wiretapped him. The documents did no such thing. But that demotion of Trump’s water-carrier came before Ryan had a beloved tax cut for the GOP donor class in hand.
Now Republicans see a soaring stock market, a booming economy, a becalmed international set at Davos, a complicit evangelical base, and think that the midterms might not be such a challenge if they can just stabilize the ship of state. Trump asks Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if he’s on his team and Republicans are undisturbed. Trump says on a hot mic that he’s “100% “ going to release the Nunes memo when the White House said hours earlier he hadn’t even read it, and his party moves ahead with it at the risk of revealing sources and methods.
Even as they stood and gustily cheered, what a tall order it must be to embrace Trump in what’s being called a slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre. Even though Twitter Trump stayed home with a cheeseburger and Fox News while Teleprompter Trump came to Capitol Hill, they had to overlook a president willing to alter reality in the well of the House and never once smile. He strutted, mugged, and applauded for himself, chin jutting and eyes squinting, the most joyless president in modern history. Still I have a $50 hamburger at the Trump Hotel for anyone who spotted a Republican who didn’t clap on cue.
What they’ve forgotten is that Trump is an anomaly who can be easily made unhappy but never made happy. Sell your soul to placate him today—I’m thinking of you, Gen. Kelly—and tomorrow you may still find yourself cashiered. Just ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions how that works.
Someday the Grand Old Party may see that by normalizing Trump they’ve violated every traditional and constitutional norm. If that’s the price of power, for now they are willing to pay it.