They know Trump is unfit, but he gives them tax cuts and right-wing judges. Those tax cuts and right-wing judges, in turn, strengthen the president’s hand, buying him gratitude from rich donors and potential legal cover.
On Wednesday, the second day of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked him a straightforward question about Robert Mueller, the special counsel. “Have you discussed Mueller or his investigation with anyone at Kasowitz Benson and Torres, the law firm founded by Marc Kasowitz, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer?” Harris asked.
Kavanaugh stumbled. He repeated the firm’s name as if he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard it before. He told Harris he didn’t know everyone who works there, and asked her, in several different ways, who she was thinking of. “I think you’re thinking of someone and you don’t want to tell us,” said Harris, a former prosecutor. “Who did you have a conversation with?” Throughout the exchange, which continued for several minutes, Kavanaugh was evasive.
Entering the hearing room Thursday, Harris told reporters, “I have good reason to believe there was a conversation. Information that I’ve received is reliable and I asked him a clear question and he couldn’t give a clear answer.”
As I write this, we don’t know what Harris’ information is. The exchange hinted at a potentially scandalous conflict of interest, though Kasowitz’s firm has denied that any such conversation took place, and when Kavanaugh was questioned again by Harris on Thursday, he denied it as well. Whatever emerges, Kavanaugh, under questioning from Democrats, offered no comfort to those who fear he’s being put in place to protect the president. Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked if Kavanaugh would commit to recuse himself from cases involving Trump’s “personal criminal or civil liability,” but Kavanaugh would not do so. The nominee danced around a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein about whether a sitting president can be required to respond to a subpoena. He didn’t answer a question from Sen. Patrick Leahy about whether a president can pardon himself.
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There are plenty of reasons Kavanaugh shouldn’t be confirmed. Leahy made a credible case that the judge once lied under oath about his knowledge of a scandal involving documents stolen from Senate Democrats, which happened when Kavanaugh was in the Bush administration. If Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, were actually committed to preserving Roe v. Wade, she would raise the alarm about a leaked email in which Kavanaugh questioned the idea that the 1973 abortion decision is “settled law.” But realistically, barring a last-minute outbreak of conscience from two Senate Republicans, Kavanaugh will soon sit on the Supreme Court.
He will owe his elevation to Trump, who is in effect an unindicted co-conspirator in a campaign finance crime that helped him achieve his minority victory. There’s every reason to believe that Kavanaugh will shield the president from accountability or restraints on his power. Yet even Republicans who think Trump is a menace are desperate to confirm his judicial pick.
What we have here, in miniature, is the corrupt bargain Washington Republicans have made with a president many of them privately despise. They know Trump is unfit, but he gives them tax cuts and right-wing judges. Those tax cuts and right-wing judges, in turn, strengthen the president’s hand, buying him gratitude from rich donors and potential legal cover. Republicans who participate in this cycle seem convinced that the situation is, and will remain, under their control.
On Wednesday, as you likely know by now, The New York Times published an anonymous Op-Ed by a senior Trump official headlined, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” It was revealing, though not necessarily in the way the author intended. We already know that many of Trump’s closest aides hold him in contempt. What’s fascinating is how this official, who describes the president as amoral, anti-democratic and reckless, rationalizes working for him regardless.
“We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous,” the official wrote, adding, “There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”
This is the quintessence of the Trump-enabling Republican. He or she purports to be standing between us and the calamities that our ignorant and unstable president could unleash, while complaining, in the very same Op-Ed, that the media doesn’t give the White House enough credit. This person wants the administration to thrive because it has advanced Republican policy objectives, even as he or she argues that the administration is so dangerous that it must be contained by unprecedented internal sabotage.
Since this dystopian regime began, I’ve wondered how Republicans who collaborate with Trump despite knowing he’s a disaster live with themselves. Why hasn’t a group of White House staffers quit in protest and then held a news conference? Why haven’t Sens. Bob Corker and Ben Sasse, both of whom have said that the anonymous Op-Ed matches their own understanding of Trump, done more to stand up to him? Why aren’t former officials like Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster telling us publicly what they saw on the inside? How is it that none of these people have managed to behave as honorably as Omarosa Manigault Newman, who at least put her name to her words, and brought us evidence of what she witnessed?
One answer is that they care about the norms of American democracy — at least some of them — but not quite as much as they care about the agenda of the Republican Party.
If Kavanaugh weren’t confirmed, it would be a profound blow to Trump, and not just because he would look weak and disappoint his evangelical base. Without Kavanaugh, Trump wouldn’t be assured of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court if and when it rules on him and his administration. With Kavanaugh, the tiebreaking vote on the Supreme Court will be a right-wing apparatchik chosen in part for his deference to executive power.
A vote for Kavanaugh is thus a vote to give Trump a measure of impunity. Republican senators who know the president is out of control have a choice — they can maintain a check on his ill-considered autocratic inclinations, or solidify right-wing power on the Supreme Court for a generation. It’s obvious which way they’ll go. Maybe they’ll tell themselves having adults in the room at the White House makes it OK.