Republicans need to protect themselves from Trump — now
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Do you remember the time President Obama ordered a military strike without enough preparation and then took to Twitter to complain about his press clippings rather than following matters in the Situation Room?

How about the time he unleashed a series of insults against our closest allies and trading partners while refusing to sanction an unfriendly nation that had infiltrated our computer networks?

Or, what about the time he questioned the legitimacy of a federal judge who had ruled against him?

Of course, you don't remember, because Obama never did those things. It was President Trump, instead, and in only his first two weeks in office. But imagine what the outcry would have been from congressional Republicans if Obama had done any of them.

Irresponsible, traitorous, unconstitutional, potentially even unhinged — the Republican charges against him would have been a flurry. But change the occupant of the Oval Office and his party label, and the Republican response has been essentially crickets. With a few exceptions — even in the wake of the Michael Flynn debacle — Republicans have been hesitant to criticize Trump.

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Why the silence? Well, three weeks in, Republicans may want to provide him a honeymoon. He won sizable majorities from the Republican base, and they may not want to risk the ire of conservative talk radio hosts or even Trump himself, who is known to unleash a barrage of negative tweets against anyone who criticizes him.

 

Perhaps they have bigger plans for Trump — to use him to pass tax cuts or abortion restrictions — and need to prop him up while the legislation is written.

Or maybe they even agree with him, whether in style or substance.

For that matter, it's not as if silence in the face of political absurdity is unprecedented. Consider the past embarrassments on the Democratic side — the late Rep. Jim Traficant (Ohio), former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich or the late mayor of Washington, Marion Barry. In each case, opposition did not truly coalesce or officials call for ouster until each was arrested or indicted.

Although there remain questions about the legality of Trump's conduct — from the constitutionality of his immigration order to his compliance with the Emoluments Clause — no law enforcement agency has named him a target or person of interest.

So, why should Republicans criticize Trump's conduct or draw greater distance from his presidency? Because it's in their political interests.

Yes, that’s right: Trump threatens the political future of Republican legislators and the success of the Republican brand. Congressional Republicans need to get into the habit now of drawing distinctions with him or they will find themselves tethered to him like an anchor, eventually swamping their political fortunes.

How so? It begins with numbers.

Trump was elected with a historically low share of the vote, so low, in fact, that he did not win a plurality, let alone the majority, and his approval rating has been going down since. As of last week, Trump was nearing a -15 percentage point net approval rating in the Gallup Poll.

The early weeks of his presidency also seem to belie one of the very messages he ran on — strength and effectiveness. So far, except for the introduction of his Supreme Court nominee, the modus operandi of the Trump White House has been mainly bungling.

Example one has been the botched rollout of his immigration ban, which has already seen multiple stories detailing failures in planning and communication, and the numerous leaks out of the White House suggest even a staff that is fearful of being associated with the substance and style of initiatives emanating there.

Trump also enters office at the top of a business cycle with historically low interest rates, shrunken unemployment, a strong dollar and a booming stock market. Sure, the market could go up, but the instability of the administration already has Wall Street skittish, and with trade wars on the horizon, it's hardly a sure bet that conditions will be this promising four years from now.

Some of this may not matter to the Republican base, which is just happy to have one of its own in the White House. But recall that, but for 2 percent of the vote in several states, there would have been a different president and a Democratic Senate. Republicans are playing at the margins in a country that is getting more diverse, bolstering an outsider who took over their party and whose popularity is likely to drop even further.

If, as political scientists say, elected officials are motivated by the desire to be reelected, we would expect Republicans to jettison Trump if he becomes a dead weight.

But often, politicians have a difficult time anticipating the long-term, or even the medium-term, implications of their actions. Remember all those Democrats who voted for the Iraq War thinking it would make them seem "strong," but who then had to spend considerable political capital down the road defending what turned out to be an unpopular decision?

Trump is poised to become the Republican's Iraq War: a polarizing figure whom Republicans fear challenging now but who may come back to bite them later if they don't build some daylight while they can.

Unlike the Iraq War, though, it hardly takes classified intelligence to recognize that being joined to Trump is fraught with political danger. Maybe he'll bolster the party; perhaps congressional Republicans can use him to enact their legislative agenda; but the greater risk is that he becomes the face and brand of the party and that an uncritical congressional majority goes down with him as his act gets stale.

In their hearts, many Republican congressmen and senators must know he isn't really one of them, and it must be unnerving to hand him the keys of the party. Perhaps some congressional Republicans will step in because it's the right thing to do.

If nothing else, it's also the right thing for their political futures.

Jon Gould is a professor of public affairs and law at American University and author of the books "Speak No Evil: The Triumph of Hate Speech Regulation" and "The Innocence Commission: Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Criminal Justice System."


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