Donald Trump has spent his entire political career testing how far he can push Republicans. For years, he spread the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn't born in the US, and prominent conservatives didn't reject him; Fox News kept inviting him back on the air. He feuded with a Gold Star family and was revealed to have bragged about grabbing women "by the pussy," and though Republican leaders cautiously rebuked him, not many truly broke with him by endorsing Hillary Clinton. Predictably, Trump has spent his presidency careening from one scandal to another without being checked in any meaningful way by the GOP-led Congress. Individual Republicans have spoken out against Trump, but mostly only when they're announcing that they're retiring and are thus safe from actually having to act. The GOP caucus as a whole is a living "this is fine" meme, content to sit quietly as Trump promotes unqualified hangers-on to positions of power, praises white nationalists, breaks up families, and prostrates himself before authoritarians.
There is clearly no line that Trump could cross that would cause his die-hard supporters to abandon him. But the support of the Republican establishment that has shielded his presidency may be eroding sooner than you think.
By now, the rhythms of a Trump-era scandal are familiar to anyone who, god help them, follows the news. First the initial reports of wrongdoing, then the declaration that there's no way Trump can get through it unscathed, then the spinning and the denials from the right, then the beginning of a new scandal that distracts from the old one. We saw that play out this week when Trump aides Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen were convicted of financial crimes on Tuesday, fueling speculation that one or both men might start sharing damning information about Trump himself with the feds. It seemed to be a massive, presidency-shaking story, but Republicans in Congress responded largely with anodyne statements about how they needed more information and how there was still no proven collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. “We’ve been through everything; the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape when almost everyone walked away,” an anonymous White House official told the Washington Post. “This is nothing. He’s fine.” By Thursday, a new story had reared its head after Trump tweeted a far-right talking point about white South African farmers being killed.
There's no evidence that Trump is about to be removed from office, and his approval rating among Republicans has remained high through all of his scandals. But cracks are slowly appearing in what has been a unified GOP front. Republicans who are at risk of losing midterm elections to Democrats are beginning to speak out against Trump or at the very least not rushing to his defense. Mitt Romney, who is poised to win a Senate seat in Utah, issued a rebuke to Trump on Twitter, though he didn't mention him by name. Politico found few current Republican senators who were flipping their views on Trump over Manafort and Cohen, but the mood was resigned and cautious rather than fully supportive. “It’s getting a little ugly,” admitted South Dakota's John Thune.
And the president's attacks on his own Justice Department are looking less and less potent—recent polling shows most voters approve of Robert Mueller's investigation, and even Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who normally toes the Trump line in public) said that his department "will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."
Republicans have signaled that Sessions may be pushed out by Trump after the midterms. But if Trump took more drastic action to torpedo the investigation—like firing Mueller or pardoning Manafort, moves that he's obviously considered—the GOP would likely feel a lot more pressure to act to protect it. Earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would block Mueller's firing, and though Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized it, it would likely be revived if Trump moved against the man investigating him. Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee chair, has previously said it would be "suicide" for Trump to fire Mueller, and that's a hard statement to walk back.
More importantly, if Democrats retake the House (a midterm outcome many are predicting) it would allow them to step up their own investigations into Trump's businesses and associates and potentially expose more wrongdoing. Trump and his allies will of course reject any investigation as a "witch hunt," but is that line really going to convince voters outside of his most ardent supporters?
Republicans looking at a tough 2018 election may want to look beyond that, to a party after Trump. These scandals may not have killed his presidency, but they have tainted it. A decade ago the GOP suffered a landslide defeat after an incredibly unpopular president had destroyed the party's image. Trump rose to power after a campaign in which he crudely and casually dismissed George W. Bush's legacy, and the same base that had stood by Dubya was more than happy to move on after all his failures were revealed. Republicans may not be ready to abandon Trump yet, but the path from president to pariah is far shorter than most people think.
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