On the domestic-policy front, there’s also been little serious pushback from congressional Republicans on the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican border. Instead, they have for the most part adopted the White House’s easily disproved claim that the policy, imposed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May, is somehow the result of laws passed by Democrats.
There’s good reason for all this acquiescence. The greatest danger to congressional Republicans of challenging Trump is not a tongue-lashing from Lindsey Graham—it’s incurring the wrath of the president himself. Primary results in Virginia and South Carolina show just how powerfully the president has remade his party at the electoral level.
In South Carolina, Trump offered a late endorsement to Kate Arrington, who challenged Representative Mark Sanford in a GOP primary. Arrington won. Sanford is, by any coherent definition of the term, far more conservative than Trump, but he dared to criticize the president, and in doing so angered the Republican base in a state that has repeatedly elected him, even after his extramarital affair in 2009 when he served as South Carolina’s governor. In Virginia, GOP voters nominated for Senate Corey Stewart, who has called himself “Trump before Trump”; supports neo-Confederates; and has praised the open anti-Semite Paul Nehlen, who’s running for Congress in Wisconsin. (He later said he was unaware of Nehlen’s most inflammatory remarks.)
In an unusual disconnect, Trump remains largely unpopular with the country as a whole, but extremely popular with the Republican base. That means primary voters nominate candidates like Stewart, even though they will struggle to win a general election. Some parts of the Republican Party continue to resist: Senator Cory Gardner, who heads the GOP’s Senate-election team, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says his group will neither endorse nor spend to support Stewart.
Individual candidates, however, will get the message: Allegiance to Trump seems to matter above all else, and criticizing Trump seems a sure way to lose primaries. They are probably right to reach that conclusion. One lesson from Democrats in the 2014 and especially 2010 midterm elections is that congressional candidates cannot successfully win by trying to run away from a president of their own party. Running away from Trump will likely be equally futile, so why bother?
On Thursday, the Justice Department’s Inspector General released a long-awaited report into the investigation of Clinton’s private email server and account. Here, too, the wholesale adoption of White House talking points shows the GOP’s thrall to Trump. The report was scathing about FBI Director James Comey’s approach, but as I explained, the watchdog both rejected accusations of political bias at the Justice Department and debunked Trump’s major talking points about Comey. As my colleague Natasha Bertrand reports, Trump’s allies have ignored the balance of the report and have chosen to focus instead on a surprising text-message exchange between two FBI agents as evidence of bias.