Why Trump's Republican critics in 2020 are different from 2016

Four years ago, plenty of Republicans balked at Trump's candidacy. In 2020, however, it's different.
Image: Colin Powell arrives at the Capitol on Dec. 4, 2018.
Colin Powell arrives at the Capitol on Dec. 4, 2018.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

In the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential election cycles, former Secretary of State Colin Powell announced his endorsements in late October. In each instance, the announcements appeared to be positioned for maximum political impact: Powell endorsed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton just a couple of weeks ahead of Election Day, as many Americans were poised to cast their ballots.

This year, Powell apparently felt the need, not only to step up and speak out, but to do so early.

Powell, who served as secretary of state under former President George W. Bush and was previously chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN's "State of the Union" that Trump is "drifting" away from the Constitution and said he's a habitual liar.... Powell, who did not vote for Trump in 2016, said he would vote for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, this fall.

Powell's public comments coincided with a New York Times report on the many prominent Republicans who've either withheld their support for Trump's re-election campaign, expressed support for Biden, or both.

The article was not short on big names: George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, for example, won't back their own party's ticket this year. Paul Ryan and John Boehner -- the party's two most recent House Speakers -- have withheld their support for the president, at least at this stage in the process.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) conceded last week that she's "struggling" with how to deal with Trump's desire for a second term, while Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) told the Times he hasn't backed a Democratic candidate in decades, but he may vote for Biden. The president, Rooney added, is "driving us all crazy."

On the surface, these circumstances may seem familiar. After all, four years ago, plenty of prominent GOP voices -- including George W. Bush and Colin Powell -- balked at supporting a Trump-led ticket. The list grew longer after the "Access Hollywood" recording surfaced, featuring the New York Republican bragging about committing sexual assault. ("When you're a star, they let you do it," he said. "You can do anything.")

But the broader political conditions are different now. For one thing, the number of Republicans who refused to stand with Trump in 2016 was very likely influenced by the widely held assumption that he would inevitably lose.

For another, what's especially striking in the New York Times report on anti-Trump GOP officials is the number of Republicans who've worked directly with the president -- even having served in his cabinet. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis broke with Trump in a very high-profile way last week, for example, and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who also served as Trump's Homeland Security secretary, wasted little time in letting the public know he stood with Mattis, not the president.

Even former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, a former Republican senator, has not endorsed Trump's re-election, saying through an aide that he "remains a loyal Republican," but he believes "the American people will decide."

It's striking enough when national GOP leaders withhold support from their own party's presidential ticket, but when Republicans like Coats, Mattis, and Kelly, among other former members of Trump's team, do the same thing, it's qualitatively different.

These officials worked side by side with the president. Unlike four years ago, when Trump was simply a foolish television personality, folks like Coats, Mattis, and Kelly had a front-row seat, watching Trump try to lead. They saw up close how Trump conducted himself, how he processed information, how he evaluated evidence, and how he made decisions.

And now that they've left the administration and had an opportunity to reflect on their time on Team Trump, some of these same officials are not on board with the president's re-election.

There's no precedent for this in modern history.