Why don’t Republicans just give up and cut Donald Trump loose? That question has been on the minds of most political observers since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, and it’s only grown more intense in the wake of scandal after scandal after scandal, in which the lying, cheating, grifting, thieving sleazebag who bigoted his way into the White House continues to make fools of everyone who supports and defends him.
The mystery only deepened after the first day of public impeachment hearings on Wednesday, when the only answer Republicans had in the face of truly overwhelming evidence of Trump’s criminality was to issue a torrent of nihilistic nonsense that didn’t even try to make sense. While Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, seemed to be getting a Christian Bale-in-“American Psycho” sense of joy from all the lying, many other Republicans seemed confused, tired or flailing. Trump can wear out even the notoriously sturdy ability to lie that defines the modern Republican politician. It can’t feel great, constantly debasing themselves for a man who never shows gratitude but only keeps upping the ante, seeing how many more crimes he can commit that they’ll cover up.
The typical answer most pundits look to is this idea that Trump’s wild popularity with the almighty base protects him. Other elected Republicans are afraid that loyalty to Trump exceeds loyalty to the party, and they would lose any conflict between the two.
There’s reason to be skeptical of this view. As the blogger Atrios pointed out, Sarah Palin was once “treated as the most important voice in politics and now she is a trivia question,” and therefore “the GOP could drop their latest messiah and 5 minutes later no one would remember.” Truthfully, the same would happen if the Republicans decided, en masse, to kick Trump to the curb — their base would go along and many of them would probably also be quietly relieved to quit pretending that Trump is a voice worthy of respect.
But there’s a strong alternative explanation: Republicans have good reason to fear that if Trump goes down, he’s taking Vice President Mike Pence with him. If that happens, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who is third in line under the Constitution, would become president. Republicans may be genuinely worried that they can’t toss Trump to the curb without losing the White House entirely.
That might initially sound odd, since Pence’s name has come up only rarely in the discussion of the Ukraine scandal. He was barely mentioned during the many hours of testimony from Ambassador Bill Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent on Wednesday. But even though that mention of Pence was brief, if one reads between the lines a bit, it was also illuminating.
In his opening statement, Taylor said that on Sept. 1, Trump suddenly canceled a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, claiming Hurrican Dorian as an excuse. (In reality, Trump played golf.) In his stead, Trump sent Pence. Taylor, who received a readout of the meeting, says that Zelensky asked right away about the military aid that Trump was withholding — aid that Trump was clearly using as leverage to extort Zelensky to back up Trump’s conspiracy theory about his presumed Democratic 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Pence “did not respond substantively,” Taylor recounted, but did say that Trump “wanted the Ukrainians to do more to fight corruption.”
To the average observer, that language sounds bland and unimportant. But those who have been following this scandal closely know that “fighting corruption” was Trump’s code phrase for opening up phony investigations to damage his political enemies and bolster right-wing conspiracy theories.” We know Trump doesn’t actually want to fight corruption, because his actual behavior and associations in Ukraine indicates a general pro-corruption point of view — and also because of common sense. We also know that while Pence might not be the sharpest pencil in the drawer, he is probably smart enough to know that “fighting corruption” was Trumpian code for “do this corrupt thing for me, or else.”
Trump’s last-minute delegation of this task to Pence has been understood as part of his larger campaign to intimidate Zelensky into doing his bidding. But it might also have served another function: To implicate Pence in the extortion scheme against Ukraine. This was right when Trump and his co-conspirators, mainly his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, were starting to sweat about getting caught. A whistleblower complaint had been filed just a couple weeks before, and career diplomats and security officials were starting to make internal complaints about the situation. No doubt Trump’s mind was very fixated on CYA at that point.
While the average viewer might not pick up these implications, Republicans in Congress watching the proceedings certainly would. Knowing that Pence toed the Trumpian line by responding to requests for aid with coded language about “fighting corruption” — language we know Zelensky understood, at this point, to mean “spread conspiracy theories about Biden” — means that Pence is implicated.
So far, Pence has avoided much scrutiny, but as Republicans are no doubt aware, Trump has no morals, no loyalty and no limits. If he senses he’s going down, there is no reason to believe he will hesitate to expose Pence’s role in this, in hopes of taking his sanctimonious veep down the slippery slide with him. Republicans have to know there’s a not-small chance that if they admit that Trump committed an impeachable offense and remove him from office, they then might face an impeachment trial for Pence too, and the prospect of a President Pelosi. (Along with a mad scramble to find someone to nominate for the 2020 presidential election.)
So they’re stuck with the guy they’ve got, who is a cunning enough criminal to know how to protect himself with his posse of lackeys, even if he’s bad at hiding incriminating evidence. Also, standing by Trump makes clear how much Republicans are sacrificing the long-term viability of their party to protect their power in the short term.
After all, while the almighty base that supports Republicans and Trump is immovable for now — drunk on Fox News propaganda, and unwilling to engage any evidence that shakes them from their GOP faith — they are also, like all human beings, mortal. (And, on average, a lot older than other voters.) There’s little reason to believe that that this nihilistic circus act being put on by Republicans will attract the newer, younger voters the party needs for its long-term health.
Republicans themselves see this, which is why they’ve focused so heavily on winding down the idea of democracy, by packing the courts and gerrymandering the voting map so that no matter how many more votes Democrats get, they never win full power. It may very well work. But the fact that they have completely abandoned any pretense of trying to argue their point and persuade voters, as the first day of impeachment hearings showed, is remarkable in itself. And if Republicans had any lingering hope that they could stanch the bleeding by replacing Trump with Pence, that seems to have gone up in smoke.