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Trump creates a 'moral reckoning' for his Republican Party

Donald J. Trump has already confronted and failed his test of moral leadership. Now it's Republican leaders' turn.
Image: Trump speaks at Trump Tower in New York
U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to questions about the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia while speaking at his Trump Tower residence in New...

The lede in the New York Times' report on Donald Trump's press conference yesterday reads like a dystopian nightmare.

President Trump buoyed the white nationalist movement on Tuesday as no president has done in generations -- equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rampaged in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.Never has he gone as far in defending their actions as he did during a wild, street-corner shouting match of a news conference in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, angrily asserting that so-called alt-left activists were just as responsible for the bloody confrontation as marchers brandishing swastikas, Confederate battle flags, anti-Semitic banners and "Trump/Pence" signs.

This is the world we live in now -- one in which a sitting president of the United States publicly praises racist activists as "very fine people" who've been treated "unfairly" by journalists.

It's a moment of national shame, but it's also the basis for a challenge to Donald Trump's partisan allies: what exactly does the Republican Party intend to do with its president in the face of such a scandal?

Steve Schmidt, a longtime GOP strategist, said on the show last night that this is "a seminal moment" for the party. "There can be no equivocation here; the moral failure is complete and it's almost irredeemable," Schmidt explained. "The Republican leaders have to condemn the president for this false equivocation directly by name. They have to censure him, or they risk sliding into a moral abyss with him." He added that this issue forces "a moral reckoning."

And yet, no one can say with confidence what, if anything, will happen.

We've all seen and heard reports for months that, behind the scenes, GOP officials recognize that Trump is simply unfit for office, but they remain publicly supportive anyway -- in part as a result of partisan pressure, in part out of fear of a backlash from the party's radicalized base.

Is there a line, however, that even Republicans concede the president cannot cross? Is Trump's willingness to draw a moral equivalence between white supremacists and opponents of white supremacists sufficient?

The painful reality is that even this moment of disgrace may not fundamentally alter the relationship between this president and his partisan allies. No members of his cabinet have resigned. No Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have called for him to step down or endorsed a censure resolution.

To be sure, plenty of GOP lawmakers have appeared outraged and issued statements to that effect -- some criticizing Trump by name, many more choosing an indirect route. And while the handwringing is welcome, it's hardly unreasonable to wonder if the mild rebukes rise to the level of the moment.

Looking ahead to the near future, the fear is Republicans will furrow their brow for a few days, wait for the news cycle to change direction, and return to working with the president on the party's far-right agenda. When asked, GOP officials will no doubt say how disappointed they are that he came to the defense of racist radicals, but it's just as likely they'll shrink when asked about a congressional censure resolution.

Donald J. Trump has already confronted and failed his test of moral leadership. Now it's Republican leaders' turn.