Scandals have typically operated as a cloud over a president’s agenda. But the Russia-related legal challenges swirling around President Trump are functioning more like a cloak for his joint agenda with congressional Republicans. That difference captures the GOP’s decision to govern in a manner aimed almost entirely at stoking their hard-core base—a critical calculation that could determine their fate in the 2018 election, and possibly the 2020 contest, as well.
In the week since fired FBI Director James Comey leveled his explosive charges at the president, Capitol Hill Republicans have followed a two-track response. With virtual unanimity, they have insisted that even if Trump did everything Comey alleged, the behavior does not warrant criminal action or impeachment. And simultaneously, while the Trump-Comey confrontation has monopolized media attention, both chambers have advanced deeply conservative policy proposals—with House Republicans voting to repeal the major financial regulations approved under former President Barack Obama, and Senate Republicans working in private toward a plan to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Both of these responses rest on the calculation that Republicans can best avoid losses in 2018 by mobilizing their base supporters, no matter how other voters respond to their actions. But the choice to aim their governing decisions at such a narrow spectrum of Americans could magnify the risks facing Republicans in 2018—and, for that matter, Trump in 2020. As Trump’s presidency careens through increasingly turbulent waters, congressional Republicans are lashing themselves ever more tightly to its mast.