Beyond all the revelations about Russian entanglements and possible obstruction of justice, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report crystallizes two cardinal rules about governance in Donald Trump’s Washington. One is that Trump will shatter any boundaries of law, morality, or custom in his exercise of presidential power. The second is that Republicans—not only in Congress, but now also in the executive branch—will not restrain any of his excesses. The same holds true for both unwritten rules: They constitute a defining gamble for the GOP in future elections.
Starting with Attorney General William Barr’s staggeringly misleading press conference Thursday about the report, and extending through the blithe dismissal from congressional Republicans of its revelations, the release was yet another demonstration that there may be literally nothing Trump can do that would cause Republicans to break from him. Mueller’s report cataloged dozens of behaviors from Trump and his advisers—from sharing internal campaign polling data and strategy with a suspected agent of a foreign power to repeatedly lying to the public to systematically seeking to thwart investigations—that would have inspired volcanic eruptions of outrage from congressional Republicans and the conservative-media infrastructure if perpetrated by a Democratic president.
Instead, the dominant impulse among leading Republicans and conservatives that it’s time to move on was interrupted only by those who say the party should now investigate the investigators who launched the Russia inquiry. Whether by conviction or convenience, the GOP has now almost completely accepted an implicit trade-off: It will tolerate and even defend all of Trump’s most malignant behavior—from his assaults on the rule of law to his open appeals to white racial resentments to his fraying of bonds with historic international allies—in return for the leverage he provides to extend core conservative goals, such as cutting taxes, spending, and regulation and appointing conservative judges.
The electoral bet embodied in this choice is to bind the party’s fate tightly to Trump’s. His tumultuous presidency has accelerated and deepened three political trends that predated him. One is to solidify the Republican hold on what I’ve called the “coalition of restoration”: older, blue-collar, and evangelical whites. The second is to alienate the most ardent elements of the Democratic coalition: young people and minorities. The third is to weaken the Republican position with college-educated, white-collar white voters, particularly in the suburbs surrounding major metropolitan areas.
The Mueller findings—particularly around Trump’s systematic efforts to block the inquiry itself—and the Republican reaction may exert the most influence on that third group. A principal reason Trump’s approval rating is lower than might be expected, given the strength of the economy, is that many of those college-educated white voters who are thriving economically view him as personally unfit for the presidency in terms of judgment, temperament, and morals. In the midterm elections last year, they expressed that unease by moving in unprecedented numbers for Democratic congressional candidates and many statewide Democratic candidates, dashing the hope of Republican strategists who thought they would differentiate between their party and the president.
Mueller’s report aims directly at the anxieties these voters express about Trump and his Republican defenders. Many of these college-educated whites are traditionally center-right voters who may agree with key aspects of Trump’s agenda, such as his success in cutting taxes. But the lying, belligerence, scheming, and disregard for the law that Mueller cataloged in Trump’s effort to block his inquiry speak directly to the greatest doubts these voters have expressed about the president. The report validates the concerns of anyone who feared how Trump would wield presidential power—with a solipsistic elevation of his personal interest over any other concern, and with an utter disregard for limits of law, much less morality. (Mueller may have produced the most damning portrait of a leader exercising power since Shakespeare’s Richard III.)
The response to the report, in turn, validates the fears of those concerned that a Republican Congress will never meaningfully restrain those instincts. Barr’s servile press conference on Thursday morning obliterated the last hope, from earlier in Trump’s term, that senior “wise men” in the executive branch would restrain him in any way either. The resistance by former White House Counsel Don McGahn to some of Trump’s most egregious demands—particularly to fire Mueller—was a crucial step toward the completion of this report. It’s hard to imagine Trump’s current staff and Cabinet of loyalists and acting appointees resisting him so firmly on any front. Indeed, his acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, has defined his tenure by refusing to try.
The implications of these dynamics extend far beyond the Mueller inquiry itself. They are also apparent in the ongoing purge of the Department of Homeland Security, which is largely the result of resistance there to hard-line White House immigration proposals. They are evident in Trump’s effort to further erode the independence of the Federal Reserve Board by nominating such openly partisan and dubiously qualified individuals as Herman Cain and Stephen Moore. And these dynamics explain the Republican acceptance of Trump’s ever more openly xenophobic and racist language, such as insisting that “our country is full,” as he looks to stir white racial anxieties in advance of 2020.
The Mueller report may not dislodge significant elements of Trump’s electoral coalition, some of whom thrill to his behavior and others who accept it in the same implicit bargain as do Republicans in Congress. But it seems highly likely to reinforce the doubts of the nearly 55 percent of Americans who expressed unease, if not outright revulsion, about him as president through their votes for other candidates in the 2016 election and for Democrats in the 2018 House races.
In 2016, many of Trump’s voters, uncertain of him but desiring change and dubious of Hillary Clinton, consciously took a flier: According to exit polls, about one-fifth of his supporters said they doubted that he had the experience to succeed as president, and about one-fourth said they doubted that he had the temperament. (Those numbers were even higher among ambivalent college-educated white voters.) Especially after the brutal bill of particulars that Mueller identified about Trump’s behavior, those voters now face a reckoning on their choice. No member of Congress, no potential executive-branch appointee, and, above all, no voter can claim any illusions about what a Trump second term might look like, especially if enabled by a Congress fully controlled again by Republicans.
Mueller sent many signals in his report that, given his own legal constraints, he expected Congress to assume responsibility for imposing accountability for Trump’s behavior. But his report also shows the limits of relying solely on courts and prosecutors to uphold the rule of law, or to defend basic standards of morality, in government. After Mueller’s detailed catalog of Trump’s unacceptable, if not indictable, behavior, that responsibility more clearly than ever rests with voters.
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