Seven years ago, while on the presidential campaign trail, Donald Trump boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.” The point of the boast was simple: The Republican believed his partisan support was so strong, and his control was so absolute, that he could politically persevere no matter how serious the allegations against him.
Yesterday created a new test of the Fifth Avenue theory. After hearing evidence in a civil trial, a jury concluded that the former president is liable for sexually abusing a woman. Those same jurors agreed that Trump owes his accuser, E. Jean Carroll, $5 million in damages.
Under the traditional norms of American politics, these developments would be an immediate career-ender. In contemporary Republican politics, however, as Trump’s Fifth Avenue theory suggests, the rules — and the GOP — are facing a new test.
The party hasn’t exactly aced the exam. HuffPost reported overnight:
Republican lawmakers defended former President Donald Trump after he was found liable for sexual assault and defamation in a civil case in New York, in the latest legal bombshell that could haunt the GOP presidential front-runner in 2024. “That jury’s a joke. The whole case is a joke,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters on Tuesday. ... “It makes me want to vote for him twice,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) told HuffPost when asked about the verdict.
Sen. Bill Hagerty went so far as to suggest Trump, and not Carroll, should be seen as some kind of victim. “I think we’ve seen President Trump under attack since before he became president,” the Tennessee Republican told Fox News. “This has been going on for years. He’s been amazing in his ability to weather these sorts of attacks and the American public has been amazing in their support through it.”
Several other prominent Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Rick Scott, insisted the verdict was less relevant because the civil trial was in New York — a city in which the defendant was born and raised, and where he spent most of his life.
As for Trump’s rivals for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, a Washington Post report added, “[S]everal of Trump’s current and prospective GOP rivals were quiet on the verdict on Tuesday.”
To be sure, it would be unfair to suggest the entirety of the party rallied behind the former president after the trial ended. Sen. John Thune, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, said voters might soon decide they no longer want to “deal with all the drama.” Asked about the verdict, Republican Sen. John Cornyn added, that “I don’t think he can get elected.”
For his part, Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer said, “[A] verdict like this doesn’t put a checkbox in the positive category” and suggested it would “for sure” be a liability in a general election.
But let’s not brush past the underlying message: Even these criticisms, for lack of a better word, are muted to the point of irrelevance. As for their reactions, these GOP senators’ focus turned to electoral considerations, and they showed no interest in condemning Trump directly.
Or put another way, the Republican Party, confronted with a test that should’ve been easy, failed once again.