With each new revelation in the ongoing Trump-Russia saga, the same question inevitably gets asked: Will this be the moment Republicans in Congress finally turn on the president?
The answer, so far, has been an emphatic “no.” As evidence piles up pointing to the possibility that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Republican lawmakers have largely ignored Democrats’ calls for urgent action and continued about their day jobs. Instead of a righteous outcry, there have been muted declarations of “concern”; feeble entreaties that the issue be “taken seriously”; careful expressions of confidence that investigators will—in due time—“get to the bottom” of all this messy business. We know the talking points. We’ve been hearing them for months.
But what do congressional Republicans actually think about the Russia controversy? And what would the investigation have to turn up for members to abandon the president and his agenda en masse? Is a breaking point of that sort even possible—and if so, what would it look like?
Over the past week, I’ve put these questions to a wide range of GOP sources on Capitol Hill (granting most of them anonymity in an attempt to elicit more candor). Their answers varied, as did their relative levels of exasperation with Trump’s handling of the Russia affair. As one senior Senate aide told me, the private reactions from Republican lawmakers to the most recent spate of bombshells has run the gamut. “Some people are like, ‘This is bullshit, this is just an effort to undermine Trump,’ then some are like, ‘Trump needs to be removed from office.’ It’s all over the place.”
But on one point, at least, there seems to be widespread consensus: All of them believe they’re already doing everything they can within reason to hold the president accountable—and they fiercely reject any argument to the contrary.
One senior GOP aide, for example, described the outrage over Russia’s election meddling, as well as allegations of collusion, as “a lot of partisan noise” generated by opportunistic Democrats. “Is there a cybersecurity issue here that needs to be taken more seriously? Absolutely. But,” he added with a scoff, “democracy is not dying in darkness.”
Like many of his colleagues, the aide expressed profound annoyance when I asked him if there would ever come a time when Republicans turn on Trump. “What does that even mean? What do you expect us to do?” he replied. “I hear this with every little Tweet [from Trump]: ‘Oh, when are Republicans going to put an end to this?’ What do you want us to do, seize his Twitter account?” The best that can be hoped for from congressional Republicans, he argued, is transparency. “When Trump does something we disagree with, we’ll disagree with him. When Trump’s interests align with ours, we’ll work with him. That’s the situation we’re in.”
Another longtime GOP aide expressed genuine bafflement at critics who say Republicans are letting Trump off the hook by working to advance the White House’s domestic legislative agenda. “I don’t understand that at all,” the aide told me. “Just because you criticize [Trump] on Russia, that doesn’t mean you suddenly support Obamacare.”
Plenty of Republican lawmakers have publicly condemned Russia for interfering with the 2016 election—and a few have even explicitly raised concerns about the Trump campaign’s alleged involvement in that effort. But Democrats and NeverTrump conservatives say lip service isn’t enough. In their view, the possibility that Trump won the presidency in part because his campaign worked with a foreign adversary to sway the election is so scandalous—and such a threat to the democratic process—that it demands urgent, bipartisan action.
If Republicans wanted to take this seriously, Trump’s opponents argue, there are plenty of concrete steps available to them. They could start issuing subpoenas more aggressively; stall legislation and block nominees until they get answers from the administration; support the resolutions of inquiry in the House; and hold regular press conferences updating the public on the status of their investigations.
They could, in other words, approach the Russia probe with the same dogged resolve they showed when they were investigating Benghazi. Of course, a Republican Congress waging a crusade like that against a Republican president would be extraordinary and largely unprecedented. But Democrats contend that this is an extraordinary situation that it deserves an unprecedented response.
When I floated this idea to Capitol Hill Republicans, they generally found it preposterous. They were willing to allow for the possibility that some Trump campaign officials might have inappropriately cooperated with Russians, but they said the president and his team were simply too incompetent to pull off a high-level House of Cards-style conspiracy. At worst, they seemed to believe Team Trump’s collusion amounted to a “conspiracy of dunces” (as a recent Ross Douthat column termed it)—embarrassing and unseemly, sure, but certainly not so grave as to demand blowing up the entire GOP agenda to address it.
“I think most of us agree that if something did happen, it wasn’t anything malicious … it’s just chalked up to [Trump and his advisers] not being very smart,” one senior Senate aide told me. “When people are pointing to Carter Page as someone who colluded, I don’t have any problem believing that… There are so many people who associate themselves with campaigns that are clowns.” Even the meeting Donald Trump Jr. orchestrated with a Kremlin-linked lawyer was seen as evidence of bumbling ineptitude more than high crimes and misdemeanors.
Several Republicans relished pointing out to me the credibility gaps in their critics’ arguments. One congressional aide said that after years of watching Democrats dismiss and mock the GOP’s warnings about Russia, it was hard to take their current indignation seriously. “They discovered the Russian threat three seconds ago, and all of a sudden it’s the biggest threat to democracy ever,” he cracked.
Another senior Hill staffer told me that national news outlets’ breathless search for Trump scandals had undermined their ability to serve as neutral arbiters in the Russia debate. “The media is absolutely obsessed with this issue,” she said. “I think they make hay out of things that don’t really matter… It’s obviously fair to cover, but there’s just this outrage associated with literally everything the Trump administration [does]. It’s unreasonable.”
Doug Heye, a Capitol Hill veteran who worked for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said the Republican lawmakers he hears from have taken mostly to “rolling their eyes” at the righteous indignation of Trump’s opponents. “This is going to be a long four years, could be a long eight years, and Democrats charging treason and pushing impeachment this early—there’s certainly a sense that they’re overplaying their hand, and they’re doing so very quickly.”
The Republicans I talked to were unanimous in their assessment that any potential impeachment proceedings were still a long ways off, and would most likely never materialize as long as the GOP controlled Congress. But they did describe a more realistic scenario in which the chorus of Trump’s conservative critics on Capitol Hill grows larger and louder—especially as the president’s approval ratings continue to erode, legislation remains hampered, and damning revelations continue to surface in the Russia probe. As one aide put it, “You’d be surprised how many members are willing to go on TV and bash an unpopular president.”
For now, another aide told me, most Republican lawmakers are “keeping their heads down and trying to get done what they can.” It may not be the most courageous approach, but she reasoned, “If you’re trying to push issues through that are important to your state, you’ve gotta work with people in your party.” The decision to start speaking out against Trump “is going to be a political calculation that every single Republican makes,” she said. “And as long as Trump has a strong base behind him, I don’t think it’s smart for most members to go out of their way to try and undermine him.”
Indeed, among GOP lawmakers there remains a widespread fear that wading too conspicuously into the Russia controversy will unleash the wrath of figures like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity—conservative talk radio hosts whom one senior Senate aide referred to as “the modern-day party bosses.”
“It’s tough,” the aide told me. “Every time you speak out against Trump on Russia, you’re gonna get it.”