When the FBI arrested Donald Trump’s former campaign manager on Monday morning, the president was ready with a response. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” He added: “...Also there is NO COLLUSION!”
Over the weekend, conservative media had already begun circling the wagons. The Wall Street Journal editorial page pre-emptively decried the investigation, calling on Robert Mueller to resign from the inquiry, and asking Trump to issue broad pardons to everyone involved in the scandal, on the tendentious idea that the president cannot actually obstruct justice. Outlets like Fox News have gone even further. On Sunday, host Jeanine Pirro demanded that Trump fire Mueller and called for him to “lock up” Hillary Clinton in light of news that her campaign helped pay for information to damage then-candidate Trump.
The encouragement from conservative media would seem to heighten the odds Trump moves against Mueller in a short-sighted attempt to insulate himself from potential scrutiny. (Adding to the fire was a separate filing in which Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russian government officials.)
If anyone can stop this authoritarian turn its Trump’s fellow Republicans. By threatening consequences and pledging to take action, Republicans can threaten real friction if Trump moves the country to the brink of an outright constitutional crisis. But are Republicans willing to take that step?
The obvious answer is no. Sure, there’s clear evidence of Republican discontent with the president. For their sharp attacks on Donald Trump, Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have been applauded—even celebrated—as brave independents. But they’ve yet to act on that disdain. Flake, who blasted the president as dangerously unfit for office in a blistering speech on the Senate floor, has already disavowed both impeachment and the 25th Amendment as a remedy for the problem of Trump, instead calling for Republicans to stand against him in an as yet undefined way. And Corker—who could have won re-election as an anti-Trump Republican—is retiring, abandoning his party to pro-Trump loyalists like potential successor Marsha Blackburn.
Flake and Corker notwithstanding, the vast majority of Republican Party officeholders publicly support the president, as do the overwhelming majority of Republican voters. “I think we need to accept that Donald Trump is our president,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins during a Sunday interview on CBS’ Face the Nation. Sen. Lindsey Graham, once a vocal critic of Trump, has begun to cozy up to the president. “He’s very popular in my state,” said Graham in an interview with the New York Times. “When I help him, it helps me back home. And I think it probably helps him to be able to do business with an old rival who’s seen as a deal maker.”
Trump’s influence extends to prospective officeholders like Virginia’s Ed Gillespie and New Jersey’s Kim Guadagno, who are running Trump-like campaigns for governor in their respective states. When asked about candidates in Trump’s mold, like Alabama Senate hopeful Roy Moore, most Republicans are quick to endorse. “Voters can choose a liberal Democrat, who will stand with Charles Schumer to raise taxes, weaken our military, open our border, and undermine our constitutional rights. Or, they can choose to elect Judge Roy Moore, a conservative who will proudly defend Alabama values,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz of Moore, who was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to follow court orders. (Cruz himself once called Trump a “sniveling coward” but now enthusiastically supports the president.)
But that dynamic is not set in stone. While Trump is backed by most Republican officeholders and elites, that support is tepid and conditional, in keeping with his extraordinarily weak position as president. To the extent that he has a legislative agenda, it has been a disaster thus far. The failed push to repeal Obamacare showed he has little ability to move skeptical Republicans, and his executive actions have been hampered by the courts. The successes he’s found through his Cabinet have been undermined by leaks and scandal. All of this is evidenced in a historically low approval rating that continues to sink into the 30s even as he presides over relative peace and prosperity.
Trump may not recognize his vulnerability, but his congressional allies are almost certainly attuned to his poor political position. They’ve simply decided it’s not worth alienating Republican voters by breaking with the president. Firing Mueller is so transgressive, so potentially unpopular, that it might change the calculus, prompting some Republicans to distance themselves lest they are pulled down in the wreckage. For Republicans to make progress on tax cuts or anything else, they have to keep Trump from self-immolating. And that gives them an incentive to discourage the president from firing Mueller and pre-emptively pardoning himself and his associates.
There were hints on Monday that Republicans recognized this reality. “As I’ve said from day one, the American people deserve answers, transparency & the truth,” wrote Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, on Twitter. “Important to allow Mueller to do his job.” That was echoed by a Republican colleague, Indiana Rep. Jim Banks: “In light of today’s indictments we must continue to support and allow the integrity of the process to work.” Sen. Flake floated pushback should Trump fire Mueller, and Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee affirmed their support for a “full and vigorous investigation.” Even Fox News was actively discouraging the president from firing off any impulsive tweets.
In the end, Republicans don’t need a commitment to higher principles to keep Trump from derailing the FBI investigation, they just need an interest in self-preservation. The question, then, is whether conservative politics—shaped as it is by an almost impenetrable bubble of propagandistic media—has distorted the consequences of abandoning the president. If the conservative echo chamber has convinced Republican politicians that sticking with Trump is always the safe option, even in the face of his authoritarian contempt for the law, then there may be no turning back.