While the downfall of President Donald Trump is far from assured, the signs are multiplying that the Republicans are preparing for a world in which Trump is no longer commander-in-chief. This is not the dreaming of the liberal resistance or the conservative #NeverTrump crowd; we’re talking about the actions of the Republican leadership, rank and file and Vice President Mike Pence himself.
No, the Republicans are not going to impeach Trump, demand his resignation or invoke the 25th Amendment to say he is incapacitated. But they are preparing escape routes from the fallout from his dismal poll numbers, stalled legislative agenda and mounting legal problems.
Six months ago, Republicans, whatever their qualms, saw no need for such planning. The 45th president, it was assumed, would sign into law the agenda of the congressional Republicans. The GOP would, in return, accommodate the president on his signature issues: jobs, immigration crackdown, revisiting free trade agreements, and restoring friendlier relations with Russia. With complete control of the government, the Republican vision seemed realistic.
Fat chance. Impulsive, unfocused and mendacious, Trump is now treated as an unpredictable menace against whom Republicans must build defenses. These defenses can also serve as escape routes if and when the GOP feels the need to break with the president.
1. The Sanctions Firewall
On July 27, House and Senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, dooming Trump’s yearning to make nice with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The president’s allies originally resisted the additional financial penalties, but caved in under the weight of Trump’s repeated lies about his campaign’s contacts with Russians and his refusal to acknowledge the U.S. intelligence finding that Russia interfered on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump’s identification with Russia has become so toxic that virtually every member of his party took the opportunity to reject it. The president can be accused of coddling Putin, but all of his putative allies on Capitol Hill have inoculated themselves against the charge.
2. The Sessions Firewall
Trump’s attempts to humiliate Attorney General Jeff Sessions into quitting were a transparent gambit to create a vacancy at the top of the Justice Department. With the Senate out of session in August, Trump could then make a “recess appointment” of a new AG who would not need Senate confirmation. The new AG could then fire independent counsel Robert Mueller, as Trump has made clear he wants to do.
In response, Senate Republicans united to set up a procedure under which the Senate is not formally recessed during the August break. If you check the Senate calendar for August, you will find a succession of days dedicated to “pro forma business,” which means “keeping the president from doing something stupid.”
To underscore their resolve, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a stalwart conservative and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, added that there is “no way” the Senate would consider confirming a new attorney general if Sessions were fired.
If Trump fires Sessions, Republicans now have a position from which to oppose him.
3. The Mueller Firewall
Two Senate Republicans have gone further to protect Mueller past August.
Thom Tillis, a hard-right Republican from North Carolina, has joined with Delaware Democrat Chris Coons in co-sponsoring legislation allowing the special counsel to make a legal challenge to any dismissal that would be reviewed by a three-judge panel.
Asked by Fox News if the measure was intended to protect Mueller from being fired by Trump, Tillis said, “There’s no question that it is.”
Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham joined Democrats Cory Booker, Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal in introducing the Special Counsel Independence Protection Act.
“Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong,” Graham told reporters when introducing the bill.
If Trump does fire Mueller, the Republicans have established a strategy for separating themselves from the White House.
4. The Pivot to Taxes
Senate Republicans are ignoring Trump’s insistence that they continue the party’s failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan say they are moving on to tax legislation, which they feel offers a better chance of success.
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) rejected Trump’s call, saying, “We’re not going back to health care. We’re in tax now. As far as I’m concerned, they shot their wad on health care and that’s the way it is. I’m sick of it.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the health committee, is working with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Democrats on potential measures to shore up, not repeal, the Affordable Care Act.
When Trump threatened the health care plans of Congress if the Senate didn’t heed his demand, Republicans called his bluff. The president predictably moved on to other obsessions.
5. The 2020 Escape Hatch
The New York Times reported that interviews with 75 Republicans at every level of the party reveal “widespread uncertainty about whether Mr. Trump would be on the ballot in 2020 and little doubt that others in the party are engaged in barely veiled contingency planning.”
Pence has set up a presidential political action committee, the first sitting vice president to do so. Pence’s outraged reaction to the Times story only underscored how threatening the perception of post-Trump planning is to the White House. Yet post-Trump planning is visible everywhere. Conservative Republicans with presidential ambitions, like Ben Sasse and Tom Cotton, are cultivating donors and advisers as if there were no Republican incumbent in the White House.
Rep. Charles Dent, a senior Republican from Pennsylvania and a relative moderate, said many in the party would welcome Trump’s exit.
“For some, it is for ideological reasons, and for others it is for stylistic reasons,” Dent said, complaining about the “exhausting” amount of “instability, chaos and dysfunction” surrounding Trump.
Six months ago, the Republicans gave Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. Now they doubt he will benefit them, and they are acting accordingly.