To shield Trump, GOP quietly abandons its own standards, principles

Asking Republicans to honor the principles and standards that Republicans themselves espoused a few months ago is hardly outrageous.
Speaker Boehner And House Leadership Address The Media After Their Closed Party Conference
Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
By Steve Benen

It was four months ago when Steve Doocy, a co-host of one of Donald Trump's favorite Fox News programs, delivered one of the most memorable lines of the entire Ukraine scandal. Just as the scope of the controversy was coming into focus, Doocy declared, "If the president said, 'I'll give you the money, but you've got to investigate Joe Biden,' that'd be off the rails wrong."

The comment came at a point at which there was still some uncertainty about what, precisely, Trump had done, and when and why he'd done it, and the White House's allies were still operating under the assumption that the story would soon fizzle. After all, it wasn't as if the public would soon confront evidence that the president was directly responsible for orchestrating an illegal extortion scheme, undermining U.S. national security, all in the hopes of cheating during his re-election campaign, right?

Ahem.

It was just this week, in the face of insurmountable evidence, that Doocy adopted an entirely new posture, which contradicted the one he espoused in late September, though it'd be unfair to single out the Fox News host as a uniquely brazen figure. He had plenty of company.

"If you could show me that Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call," [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham] said, "that would be very disturbing." [...]

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), for example, was explicit after the rough transcript came out. "There was no quid pro quo," he said to reporters. "You'd have to have that if there was going to be anything wrong." Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said something similar: "It would be troubling if any president did a quid pro quo with tax dollars ... but so far we don't have evidence that's happened."

The Washington Post analysis counted at least 10 Senate Republicans who expressed "at least some concern about a quid pro quo in relation to Ukraine."

It was around this same time that Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) conceded that there was "terrible stuff" in the call summary documenting Trump's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Nebraska Republican added, "Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons and say there's no 'there' there when there's obviously a lot that's very troubling there.."

That was before former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, a far-right voice whom Republicans have trusted for decades, appears to have written a book that says the president told him he was withholding congressionally approved military assistance precisely because he hoped to coerce our vulnerable ally into going after his domestic political rivals.

And it was at that point that Republicans moved the goalposts.

To suggest that GOP lawmakers adopt Democratic principles and standards is unrealistic, but to ask Republicans to honor the principles and standards that Republicans themselves espoused a few months ago is hardly outrageous.

Indeed, the larger dynamic began over the summer, when Congress discovered that the administration withheld the aid to Ukraine -- at the time, for reasons unknown. As Rachel explained on the show last night, the initial Republican response wasn't that Trump should simply do whatever he wants; it was actually far more respectable: several prominent GOP lawmakers insisted that the White House follow the law and deliver the security assistance.

The president, faced with bipartisan pushback, backed down and Kyiv received its aid.

The point is, however, that Republicans saw what Trump was doing, and even if they didn't initially know why, they said it wasn't right. Soon after, many of these same GOP officials and their partisan brethren said a quid pro quo, trading military aid for campaign assistance, wouldn't be right, either.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said in September, "I think it would be wildly inappropriate for an American president to invite a foreign country's leader to get engaged in an American presidential election. That strikes me as entirely inappropriate."

A few days later, a Republican told the Washington Examiner, "If there is evidence of a quid pro quo, many think the dam will start to break on our side."

In October, then-Ambassador Bill Taylor, Trump's top diplomat to Ukraine, delivered brutal testimony to Congress, supported by extensive contemporaneous notes, in which he described the president's involvement in an explicit scheme to leverage both military aid and a White House meeting as part of a plan to coerce Ukraine into participating in a domestic political scheme. Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) conceded the next day, "The picture coming out of [the hearings] based on the reporting we've seen is, yeah, I would say is not a good one."

But when reality got in the way, Republicans didn't abandon Trump; they abandoned everything they'd said in September and October.

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