Donald Trump jolted the political world yesterday when he endorsed foreign interference in American elections. The result is a multifaceted controversy, including an awkward dynamic for the president’s party: would Republicans endorse Trump’s reckless posture? Are they prepared to criticize him and risk the White House’s wrath?
The answer for some GOP officials is to avoid the question altogether. If you were watching MSNBC this morning, for example, you might’ve caught Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) walking very quickly past reporters in a Capitol Hill hallway, ignoring their requests for comment.
Around the same time, a CNN anchor said a congressional Republican had agreed to appear on the air this morning, but he or she canceled.
To his credit, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was at least willing to comment.
“I think that’s wrong. That’s a mistake,” Graham, a frequent defender of the president, said. “I’ve been consistent on this. If a public official is approached by a foreign government offering anything of value … the right answer is ‘no.’”
Graham added that he is willing to look at legislation to more clearly define what is illegal, and that “you accept assistance from a foreign government at your own peril.”
“The answer is ‘no.’ It’s got to be ‘no,’” Graham told reporters during a separate interview.
So far, so good. But the South Carolinian, who’s up for re-election next year, went on to say this morning, “I’m hoping some of my Democratic colleagues will take more seriously the fact that Christopher Steele was a foreign agent paid for by the Democratic Party.”
Graham echoed this in a written statement, denouncing “foreign influence in American elections,” before condemning Democrats for “hiring a foreign national” to “dig up dirt” on the Republican nominee.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who’s also running next year, took a similar tack: the senator conceded that accepting foreign interference is “dangerous,” before immediately pivoting to a complaint about the Clinton campaign and “a British spy’s dossier.”
In other words, Republicans appear to have settled on a message: the real problem with Donald Trump’s irresponsible position has something to do with Democrats.
To the extent that reality still has any meaning, the qualitative differences between hiring a researcher from another country and welcoming campaign assistance from a foreign government should be painfully obvious.
The former, by the GOP’s own admission, is legal; the latter is not. The former does nothing to undermine the integrity of the American electoral system; the latter is an attack on how our system is supposed to work.
What’s more, the former involves research work that was perfectly legal; the latter, at least in the case of Russia’s pro-Trump attack in 2016, involved the theft of American materials.
I have a hunch Republicans such as Graham and Cornyn recognize these differences, but they don’t feel as if they can offer a plain and unambiguous criticism of their party’s president. The result, as of this morning, was a posture that effectively said, “Trump might’ve been wrong, but complaining about those rascally Dems is what really matters.”
Update: The Washington Post had a good related item on the “what about the Steele dossier?” argument.