In less than a year, the President, with help from the Alabama Senate candidate, has so damaged the Party that it may never recover.
When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, was explaining last week why President Trump had chosen to endorse Roy Moore in this week’s special election for the U.S. Senate, in Alabama, she made the decision sound natural—and perhaps, in the current political moment, it was. Moore may be facing multiple allegations that he preyed on teen-age girls (he has denied “sexual misconduct”), but Trump, Sanders said, sees him as “a person that supports his agenda.” That prompted a reporter to wonder how much of an agenda they shared. Does Donald Trump, he asked, “agree with Roy Moore that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress?” “I haven’t asked him about a past statement from Roy Moore,” Sanders said. Her answer just about summarizes the nihilism of Trump’s Washington, where, when questioned whether the President would ban a religious group from Capitol Hill, his spokeswoman won’t say for sure without checking.
In less than a year in office, Trump has led the G.O.P. into situations and alliances so degraded that the Party may never fully recover, even as he watches an investigation into Russia’s possible interference in the 2016 election, led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, move ever closer to his immediate circle. Last week, Donald Trump, Jr., refused to answer questions before the House Intelligence Committee about his conversations with his father, and a plea deal that Mueller struck with Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, indicates that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, may be under scrutiny, too. Mueller may also have turned his attention to records related to Trump’s finances. Last Monday, the day that Trump endorsed Moore, Axios reported that one of the President’s lawyers, echoing Richard Nixon, had suggested that what might count as obstruction of justice for others would not in Trump’s case—because if the President does it, it isn’t really a crime. But each day dawns with a possibility that Trump will disgrace the Presidency more than he already has, whether he is insulting Native Americans or mangling relationships with our most trusted allies.
It would be inaccurate, though, to say that the President has acted alone, or without the coöperation of his party. There have been a few eloquent protests from members of Congress who are retiring or seem to think that they have nothing left to lose politically. After the Washington Post first published reports of Moore’s predation, several Republicans denounced him, and the Republican National Committee pulled out of a joint fund-raising agreement with him. But, last week, when Trump let the R.N.C. know that he was supporting Moore, it began pouring money into his campaign. “The President says jump and the RNC jumps,” a Party official told the Wall Street Journal.
The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, for his part, backed away from his own previous condemnation of Moore, saying on “Face the Nation,” “The people of Alabama are going to decide a week from Tuesday who they want to send to the Senate. It’s really up to them.” There had been talk that McConnell and his colleagues might help mount a write-in candidacy, or take some other measure to block Moore. Polls showing that Moore still had a good chance of beating the Democratic challenger, Doug Jones, apparently persuaded McConnell to rethink his position. (On Wednesday, however, he joined calls for Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, to resign, which Franken said he would do.)
McConnell’s acquiescence is all the more striking since he has become a useful symbol of the Party establishment that Moore professes to oppose. Last Tuesday, at a rally in Fairhope, Alabama, which Steve Bannon, the President’s former chief strategist, also attended, Moore told the crowd that he knew that Trump was “trying so hard” to do everything he had promised during the campaign—end Obamacare, tear up nafta, build the wall. He was just being held back by the likes of McConnell.
Yet Moore, for all his talk of independence, was also selling himself as a party-line voter. What made the special election special, he said, was that “we’re going to see if the people of Alabama will support the President.” (He warned his audience that Jones is not only a Democrat but had been “a Barack Obama delegate.”) If his project in Washington would be loyalty to Trump, that would make him, by current standards, a fairly typical Republican. Indeed, one of Moore’s priorities, in addition to getting Americans to “go back to God,” is the tax bill that McConnell is struggling to pass. Trump had framed his own support for Moore in terms that McConnell would appreciate, tweeting, “We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more.” But what does it mean to “need” Roy Moore’s vote?
It’s possible, given the formalities of each process, that the winner of the Alabama race will be seated in the Senate before a vote on the final version of the tax bill is taken. If Doug Jones manages to win, the speed with which a final bill would be pushed through, to avoid having him vote on it, might stun even Washington. With or without Moore, however, the bill is an extraordinarily sloppy and reckless concoction: its benefits are concentrated at the top, and it casually sabotages the health-insurance system. The cost will be in untreated illnesses and unpayable medical bills. In the tally of amorality, for McConnell to accept being mocked by Moore on the campaign trail, and then have lunch with him on Capitol Hill before the roll call, may be nothing more than a rounding error.
At the rally in Fairhope, Moore reminisced that, when Trump was elected, it was as if “a big weight had been taken off my shoulders,” and asked if others had felt, as he did, “like we had another chance.” The Republicans have a fifty-two-seat majority, meaning that Moore’s presence would be helpful but, in terms of control of the chamber, not decisive. What would they tolerate in order to secure the fifty-first vote? Put another way, if the Party is willing to give its money and its credibility to protect a candidate accused of molesting teen-agers, what might it talk itself into doing to protect the President? Robert Mueller may be interested in the answer. ♦