Those wondering the extent to which Republicans will go to defend President Donald Trump might look to the immortal words of the Mean Girls protagonist Cady Heron: “The limit does not exist.”
On Wednesday, the White House released what officials called a “transcript” (it was, at best, a reconstruction) of Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
During the conversation, Trump offers Zelensky the assistance of the attorney general and his personal lawyer in investigating the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. He asks for Zelensky to do him the “favor” of probing a far-right conspiracy theory about a “missing” server connected to the Democratic National Committee. He peppers the exchange with reminders that the United States has been “very, very good to Ukraine.”
In advance of the document’s release, Trump called it “a perfect call.” Based on my conversations with a half-dozen current and former administration officials, and various statements from lawmakers, one thing is clear: The GOP agrees with Trump, even if history will not.
“It’s now clear: There was no quid pro quo. [Trump] didn’t break any laws,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise told me. “Another day, another conspiracy theory debunked,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina argued that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “should be embarrassed,” adding: “This is yet another pathetic attempt by Democrats to destroy President Trump with falsehoods to overturn the results of the 2016 election.” The House Oversight Committee ranking member Jim Jordan was emphatic: “The transcript of the president’s phone call shows no wrongdoing.”
In one sense, the deluge of support suggested it was just another day in the Trump era. The rhythms were familiar: The president did something shocking, Democrats issued grave statements about the crumbling of democracy, and Republicans rushed to Trump’s defense. Yet today will be remembered as a singular flash point in the Trump presidency for answering whether any red line exists for Republicans in their support of this president. By the White House’s own account, Trump explicitly asked a foreign power to investigate a political foe. But for Republicans, because this request was not explicitly tied to the provision of aid, the call was essentially harmless. It was as though lawmakers had tasked themselves with removing any shred of doubt about where their loyalties lie. By noon today, the deed was done.
“I would at least give some credit to a Republican who said this is wrong, but not impeachable,” Rory Cooper, the former communications director for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, told me. “But we’re not even getting that.”
The reaction to Trump’s call with Zelensky has been virtually uniform across the GOP, from the so-called establishment to the alt-right. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called it a “dark day” for America, not because the president had bashed U.S. officials in a conversation with a foreign leader, but because Pelosi held a press conference to discuss her concerns with the call at the same time that Trump was representing the U.S. at the United Nations General Assembly.
Even the few Republicans who have been unafraid to criticize Trump in the past have come to toe the party line. When Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has softened his stance on the president ahead of his reelection bid, was asked last night whether a U.S. president requesting a foreign government to investigate a political rival was an abuse of power, he dodged the question: “There’s a lot that we’re hearing about right now that’s leading people to ask a bunch of hypotheticals where we don’t really know all the underlying facts yet. So I don’t think it’s all that useful to speculate about a lot of highly particular hypotheticals.” But since the transcript’s release this morning, Sasse has been silent, and his spokesman did not return my request for comment for this story.
Breitbart, the far-right website formerly operated by the onetime Trump guru Steve Bannon, framed the call as more evidence that “Democrats are reeling and disjointed, rudderless without a clear and concise message.” The lack of an explicit quid pro quo in the White House’s account of the exchange, the Breitbart editor Matt Boyle argued, had “clearly emboldened” the GOP ahead of the 2020 election. InfoWars, a site that routinely peddles pro-Trump conspiracy theories, headlined its main take on the episode as “[Mainstream Media] Deception,” including clips that purport to show “dishonest pundits blatantly” lying about the contents of the transcript.
Only one Trump ally I spoke with for this story conceded that the call was “worse” than the White House “would like us to believe.” The former senior White House official told me that Rudy Giuliani’s role in the call is “indefensible.” With Giuliani at the center of the morass, this person argued, the administration’s claim that Trump’s inquiries about Biden were solely predicated on “law-enforcement concerns”—and not personal political gain—is untenable. “It’s impossible to argue that this is not tainted by politics when you’ve got Rudy Giuliani there. His presence inextricably makes this political … That’s where the transcript is more damning than I thought it would be.”
The former official, however, declined to put these concerns on the record for fear of sparking Trump’s ire—a fear that seems to deepen among the majority of Republicans by the day, even as the president’s actions become more and more brazen. As Cooper put it, “If you’re looking for heroes in Washington, you’re looking in the wrong place.”