Updated at 10:49 a.m. ET on February 10, 2022.
There is no formal application for the presidency. If there were, it might contain a few prescreening questions to bounce the obviously unqualified. Is the applicant 35 years of age or older? Were they born in the United States? Have they ever tried to overthrow a lawful presidential election? If a candidate said no to the first two questions or yes to the third, their application would not proceed to the bin for further review. HR would send a note thanking them for their interest.
The first two questions are constitutional requirements. The third is not a constitutional requirement but an implicit one: Shredding the Constitution should disqualify anyone applying for a job protecting the Constitution. School-bus operators are not picked from a pool of drivers with a history of high-speed, child-imperiling joyrides. Museum guards are not selected from the ranks of art thieves.
This is obvious. But not to the Republican Party. The 2024 GOP presidential nominee will either be Donald Trump, who tried to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election, or it will be someone who passes the current purity test: agreeing to overlook the fact that Trump tried to overthrow an election.
On Friday, Trump’s vice president spoke up for traditional American standards. Mike Pence said there is “no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.” This wasn’t just abstract criticism. Pence was acknowledging that Trump pressured him to overturn the election on January 6, and he was defining Trump’s behavior against standards. On a scale of one to 10, Trump was at 11. That’s what no idea more un-American means. You can’t find any behavior worse.
On the same day, Republican Party leaders were also thinking about standards of public conduct. The Republican National Committee censured two members of Congress, Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, for looking into the events of January 6. Cheney and Kinzinger were censured for having acted in a manner “not befitting Republican members of Congress.”
Pence’s remarks were not prompted by nostalgia for the day rioters demanded his hanging. He was responding to America’s most influential Republican, who continues to falsely assert this un-American idea. “He could have overturned the Election!” Trump wrote last week, referring to Pence. The Republican Party, of its own volition, chose last week to censure two of its own over January 6. The events of that day are not in the past. They are every day defining the politics of one of America’s two major parties and shaping its standards for the future.
Political parties shift standards all the time. They find a candidate they like and then insist that the job they’re promoting that candidate for requires qualities that only that candidate has. When a candidate contradicts years of party doctrine, party leaders lower their standards to accommodate that. Often, this is how political parties succeed. But the standards at issue now are not personal or ideological. They are not about adultery or a position on deficits. At issue now are the standards of the presidency itself.
Instead of having to guess at whether the likely nominee meets once-obvious benchmarks of presidential fitness, we have voluminous verified information, accompanied by contemporaneous evaluations by the most powerful elected leaders in the Republican Party.
The employment file is thick: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a “dereliction of duty.” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” McConnell and McCarthy were evaluating Trump’s actions before the attack, but as a matter of presidential standards, what happened next was a greater breach. After chaos erupted at the Capitol, Trump was immovable. His allies in Congress, his family members, Fox News hosts, and his staffers all urged him to do his duty by issuing a statement to end the violence. He refused. His instincts were counter to his duties. Days after the riot, McCarthy identified Trump’s obligation to “quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-elect Biden is able to successfully begin his term.” Trump did none of that.
Republican leaders in Congress and the former vice president have all judged that Trump failed before the riot, during the riot, and afterward. A play of disqualification in three acts.
In the 78 days between Election Day and the inauguration, Trump engaged in a protracted search for ways to overthrow the election. He pressured the Department of Justice, the Pentagon, and Homeland Security on a number of gambits to undo the results. He encouraged others to do the same. He pressured state officials too. Many of those efforts arguably came closer to succeeding than what took place on January 6. Never in American history has a person of such power taken such direct aim at such a core tenet of democracy. A sentence that should not inspire the reaction “Four more years!”
But it does. You’d still have room in the courtesy airport shuttle if you loaded it with every Republican of stature who would speak publicly against Trump’s fitness.
More typical are attestations to and encouragements of the coming Trump candidacy. Senator Lindsey Graham says he hopes Trump runs for president again and warns that dark forces are trying to keep that from happening. “I would just say to my Republican colleagues: Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no,” Graham said. “I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.” Senator Marco Rubio has pledged not to run if Trump decides to do so again, calling him “the most popular and most influential Republican in America.” Senator Rick Scott said Trump “ought to do it again” when talking about the former president’s four years in office.
Polls show that an overwhelming number of Republicans want Trump to be president again. In a CBS poll at the end of last year, 76 percent of Republicans said they wanted Trump back in power. Fifty-six percent want him to wait to run in 2024, and 20 percent want him to “fight to be put back into the presidency right now.” A Reuters poll at the end of last year found that 54 percent of Republicans would support Trump in the 2024 election. He was 43 points ahead of his closest competitor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
A political party can’t go against the will of its voters, which leaves the GOP stuck in the position of being led by a person whom other major leaders have identified as unfit to govern. Unfit to govern not based on some vague criteria but by the most basic standards of the republic.
The GOP’s response to this puzzle is to redefine the standards for presidential behavior beyond all measure. In a typical example, in October the Senate Judiciary Committee looked into Trump’s efforts to pressure the Department of Justice. The work included interviews with former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, former Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, and former U.S. Attorney BJay Pak, an Atlanta-based lawyer who was asked to look into claims that the Georgia election was mishandled. The officials fielded requests from Trump and the DOJ lawyer Jeffrey Clark to overturn the election results at the state level, a move that would have required Clark to replace Rosen, who opposed the ploy. Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee evaluated the evidence and portrayed a key three-hour Oval Office meeting this way: “President Trump listened to the advice of his senior advisers … and made the decision not to replace Rosen or send Clark’s draft letters.”
Sounds like a ho-hum meeting. Some Trump supporters pointed to the former president’s decision not to go forward with the plan as showing laudable restraint. “President Trump did what we’d expect a president to do on an issue of this importance: he listened to his senior advisors and followed their advice and recommendations,” wrote Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the committee. But a key detail was left out of the minority’s account. At that meeting, all of the top Justice Department leaders told Trump they would resign. Among the reasons was that the Clark letters telling the states to look into the vote count were based on the claim that the DOJ had found irregularities. It had not, and Trump was told that repeatedly, including by former Attorney General Bill Barr. Nevertheless, Trump persisted. In his testimony, Donoghue listed so many planned resignations of different layers of officials—people picked by Trump and confirmed by the GOP Senate—that they fill a couple of screens on my phone. “You could have a situation here, within 24 hours, you have hundreds of people resigning from the Justice Department,” Donoghue told Trump.
When you get to the “everyone is threatening to resign” stage, it means that reason and normal channels have been exhausted. The president had pushed events to an extreme. Lauding a president for restraint in this scenario requires setting the standard for presidential behavior in the basement by the holiday tinsel.
Another favorite excuse involves zipping past the specifics to argue that Trump was merely acting on a belief that he earnestly felt about the election. “That would be like you saying that grass is blue and you genuinely believing it. Is it irresponsible that you’re colorblind and you truly believe that?” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told Tim Alberta, explaining Trump’s actions. But a politician who breaks the rules in service of a delusion places himself outside the circle of candidates for the most powerful post in the world; it’s not an argument for keeping him in that circle.
At some point, the constant redefinition of acceptable behavior changes the character of the enterprise entirely. A temperance society that rallies around a leader who celebrates his bender and who complains that his friend had the power to give him that last tray of shots has effectively become a drinking society. In this case, what’s being redefined is the office of the presidency and the basic standards of that office. Those standards are being retooled to accommodate the one person party leaders agree took actions hostile to the presidency.
This piece originally misstated the role Nikki Haley held in the Trump administration. She was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, not the United Nations secretary.