It was the John Cornyn tweet that did it.
In response to Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) tweeting,”Trumpcare by the numbers: 850% premium spike for elderly, 14 mil lose healthcare in 1st year...”, the third-term Republican senator from Texas responded simply, “Fake news.”
Cornyn, former Texas Attorney General and Supreme Court justice, is a man of political substance and pedigree. He could have said many things. He could have insisted that health care costs had to be brought under control. He could have suggested that those 14 million people included many who were making a choice in a free market. He could have made the Republican case but chose instead the most lazy, destructive political epithet of the Trump era: fake news.
Cornyn’s two-word response showed how slippery is the slope on which Republicans find themselves.
Cornyn is not alone. The election of Donald Trump has led many senior Republicans to do and say things they might never have previously imagined. Perhaps no one in Washington has been as diminished by Donald Trump as House Speaker Paul Ryan. Early on, Ryan resisted supporting Trump’s nomination. He believes in the old Republican values, and the pain is evident in his voice and manner each time he has found himself coming to Trump’s defense. This week, Ryan uttered perhaps his most fatuous defense yet, when he suggested that Trump was “new to this,” to explain why Trump might of thought it would be OK to ask the FBI Director to lay off Mike Flynn. But this is the same Donald Trump who spent much of last year castigating Bill Clinton for meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to―Trump asserted―intervene in the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. He new exactly what he was doing.
And so did Paul Ryan. By repeatedly choosing to rise to Trump’s defense, Ryan had to know he was choosing political expediency over moral leadership, and ultimately diminishing himself. Yet he has soldiered on. His choices have been in stark contrast with his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has chosen by and large to remain silent, declining to invest his personal credibility as Ryan has done in defense of Trump’s most egregious actions.
Character was once the defining attribute of the Republican brand. Character was at the root of Jeb Bush’s love for immigrants, when he pushed back against Donald Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and doomed his own presidential campaign. Bush believed that immigrants contribute to the strength and character of the nation. They don’t whine about their lot in life; they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do something about it. They seek opportunity and do jobs that others won’t. Their struggles breeds character, and character defines everything. As Mitt Romney famously argued five years ago, the GOP was supposed to be the party of personal responsibility, the party railing away about the unfairness of life are the other guys.
As the Republican primary process wore on, and GOP leaders were coming to grips with the inevitability of Trump emerging as their nominee, they told themselves that it was all good. Trump might have ridden the wave of white working class resentments to the nomination, but over time he would surely temper his conduct and demagogic rhetoric. Should he make it to the Oval Office, they would control the legislative process, and he would no doubt sign whatever legislation they put on his desk. At the end of the day, assured themselves, they would impose their will on him.
But Donald Trump never changed. There has been no metamorphosis from a candidate who was willing to say anything, at any time, to rile up his base, to a sober, measured leader of the free world. Perhaps to a greater degree than GOP leaders ever imagined possible―and as evidenced by the little things such as John Cornyn’s tweet―it is Donald Trump who has imposed his will, his personality and his values on the Republican Party. One after another, GOP leaders have found themselves rising to his defense, talking or tweeting in ways they never imagined, putting their personal credibility on the line, defending the oft-times indefensible, and finding themselves diminished for it.
Last week, it was Dan Coats' and Mike Rogers' turn. Testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee seeking to determine whether the president had sought to interfere with the FBI Russia investigation, the Director of National Intelligence and NSA Director dissembled and dodged as Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Angus King (I-ME) in turn asked them a simple question: If the White House had not invoked executive privilege, on what legal basis were they refusing to say whether or not they had been asked by the president to influence an ongoing investigation.
In the absence of an assertion of executive privilege, Coats and Rogers knew it was their duty to respond forthrightly to a Senate panel, yet they demurred. Exactly why remains unclear. "I'm not sure I have a legal basis," was the best Dan Coats could come up with. Caught in a no-man's land and visibly mortified by their own conduct as they defied their legal and moral obligation to respond to the questions, the two men who have built reputations for character and integrity across both sides of the aisle watched all they had built lie smoldering in ashes on the committee room floor.
The next day, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders jumped to Donald Trump's defense against Comey's suggestion that the president had lied. "I can definitively say the president is not a liar. It’s frankly insulting that that question would be asked."
Huckabee Sanders -- a smart, dedicated advocate, weened in politics from the womb -- was trying valiantly to suggest something that in a normal year might have had some currency -- that for a president to lie is a grave matter, and to accuse a president of lying is inherently insulting and degrading of the institution. Bill Clinton lied and he was impeached for it, and there were cries of outrage when Joe Wilson called Barack Obama a liar. But her premise was backwards. The institution of the presidency does not confer character and integrity on the occupant of the Oval Office; rather, it is our hope each four years that the individual that we elect will confirm the faith that has been placed in them by the character and integrity that he or she brings to the office. As much as she and others might wish it otherwise, character and integrity are not Donald Trump's long suits, and he has proven his bona fides as a liar at the highest level.
That is not a partisan statement, and those who repeatedly find themselves rushing to the ramparts in defense of their President should remember that calling Donald Trump a liar is not a new charge, and certainly not one levied by Democrats alone. Trump built his political brand promoting conspiracy theories and lies, and has never looked back. Before he won the Republican nomination, the assessment within the GOP of Trump as a pathological liar and narcissist was widely and publicly accepted.
This weekend, a YouGuv poll reported that only 15% of the electorate believed Trump's assertion that he did not demand a loyalty pledge from Comey. While the poll suggested that 80% of Republicans view the President favorably, fewer than one in four believed that Comey had lied when he said that Trump asked him for a loyalty pledge. When Trump said that he was prepared "one-hundred percent, under oath" to testify that James Comey had lied, even many among Trump's most devoted supporters apparently concluded, 'Yeah, Trump has no compunction about lying, even under oath.'
Prominent conservative and RedState founder Erick Erickson saw the implications of the nomination of Donald Trump early on in the primary season. Assessing the landscape and seeing the path that lay ahead, he concluded that the Republican Party owed Bill Clinton an apology. After impeaching Bill Clinton over lies and womanizing, they were "embracing a pathological liar and womanizer... Now the Republicans themselves have lost their sense of shame.”
But it is worse that that. It is not just that Donald Trump is remaking it in his own image, it is that he is testing the character and integrity of GOP leaders across the country, and far to many are failing the test. This week, Dan Coats and Mike Rogers provided a stark reminder to others that reputations for character and integrity that have built over the course of careers are ephemeral. They can be lost in a moment, and once lost may be hard to reclaim.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.