By this point it’s almost a routine. Major media outlet breaks allegation of administration malfeasance. White House spokesman denies and dissembles. Feeding frenzy ensues. The next morning the president himself weighs in defiantly via Twitter, undercutting his staff and creating a lingering Rorschach test. Lather, rinse and repeat.
For a political press corps still catching its breath from last week’s unceremonious sacking of FBI Director James Comey, the revelation that President Trump may have shared sensitive information with Russian leaders was a true bombshell. The strong implication was that the president’s loose talk, however legal, had likely compromised sources and exposed a key foreign intelligence partner—later revealed to be Israel. And with Trump’s subsequent tweets effectively confirming the story (if not its grave implications,) a tipping point seemed inevitable. It all came before the New York Times reported another damaging revelation—that the president had asked Comey to shelve the Bureau’s investigation of Michael Flynn, his disgraced national security adviser.
But for his fans, it was all just further proof of the media’s obsession with Trump and its unyielding attempts to overturn the result of the 2016 election. The upside of convincing your supporters that the media will say anything to take you down is total inoculation against just about any allegation imaginable. And the president’s apparent anti-fragility means that each successive episode digs his boosters in further, validating the “fake news” narrative and eroding whatever remaining standing legacy institutions may still have. In fact, in the more imaginative quarters of the online right, this was just an attempt to distract from the “real story,” Seth Rich and WikiLeaks.
You might argue that since Trump’s core supporters make up a mere third of the country that they are receiving undue attention. But this electoral rump is distributed overwhelmingly among the states and districts that send Republicans to Congress. For the vast majority of these members, the GOP primary is tantamount to the general election; the rest are tied to the broader ebb of the midterm tide in either direction. Which means, for better or worse, that the permission structure to break from Trump in any meaningful way is tied to his standing in the polls.
Among GOP elected officials, the exhaustion is palpable. Senator Susan Collins of Maine no doubt spoke for an exasperated conference in her comments to reporters on Monday. “Can we have a crisis-free day? That’s all I’m asking.” Calls from the House back bench have sprung up on Twitter, and the frustrations of rank and file senators have boiled over in print and on cable news. But those same grumbles have persisted in one form or another since day one without much tangible effect. It remains to be seen if this is a blip or a crescendo.
The collective action problem facing elected Republicans today is an echo of the dynamic that played out on the campaign trail. Whatever their true feelings, your average member is boxed in unless and until Trump’s numbers begin to crater with their voters; right now, his approval rating among Republicans is in the 80s. While most GOP congressional candidates kept Trump at arms’ length last year, a move validated by their performance, those who openly crossed him did so strategically and in relatively muted tones. The one time you did see a real jailbreak, with the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, it yielded around 50 defections; but those decisions—and the ensuing anticlimax—leave scar tissue to this day. During a crucial week for the health care bill, leaked audio surfaced of Speaker Paul Ryan backing away from Trump mere weeks before the election, an episode that remains a sore spot for the president.
And yet the stakes on the trail were different. Back then you only had to grit your teeth through the last few months of the election, hold on tight and hope for the best. Flash forward and Republicans actually hold all the levers of power. If it was hard to cross the party’s underdog nominee, the thought of breaking with the president of the United States with three and a half years left on the clock is exponentially more daunting. Moreover, the current trifecta may be a once-a-generation legislative opportunity, suggesting a heightened tolerance for Trump’s foibles. When you find yourself in the red zone on a decade’s worth of political goals, it takes a lot of lost yardage to force you to punt.
There still may be more fallout from the Russia meeting, to be sure. For now it feels like a political bomb that didn’t quite go off, even if the audible ticks sent the smarter pols scrambling. But it’s nonetheless an instructive moment when it comes to discerning the pain threshold for the elected GOP. The criticisms may grow louder with each unforced error by the White House, but as long as the legislative dream is still alive it’s hard to imagine any sort of full-scale break. If that dream dies, however, it’s every man for himself.