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Corruption Is the Tie that Binds for Trump-Era Republicans

Though they threaten defections over personnel and policy, members of the president's party are truer than ever to the man.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

A strange thing has happened over the past month or so: Senate Republicans have begun to stand up to President Trump. Haltingly, tentatively, perhaps, but on things that matter, a bit of spine has been sighted. What matters? Well, they’ve objected to the controversial appointments of Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to seats on the Federal Reserve—so much so, that, when lumped together with an utter lack of qualifications and handful of scandals, both men withdrew their names from consideration. They were primed to stop the confirmation of Ken Cuccinelli—a man who made a career out of attacking GOP senators—as head of Citizenship and Immigration Services (until Trump went and appointed Cuccinelli to an acting role). There’s the vote to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia after the murder of a Washington Post columnist. And they’ve even passed a disaster relief bill that included funding for Puerto Rico but didn’t give a dollar to Trump’s border wall.

The GOP has, in particular, gone into a tizzy over Trump’s seemingly improvised threats to levy tariffs against Mexico. With companies like General Motors—the largest exporter of manufactured goods from Mexico to the United States—feeling the potential pinch, a bloc of Senate Republicans last week threatened to join with Democrats in a veto-proof majority if Trump went ahead with his unilateral trade war. Trump quickly abandoned his threat and, instead, made a half-hearted declaration of victory.

This growing willingness to undercut the president’s policy and personnel decisions has, however, coincided with Republicans growing ever more defensive of Trump himself. As Democrats slowly investigate the myriad number of scandals enveloping his administration, businesses, and personal life, the GOP has doubled down on their dear leader.

This is no accident. Instead, it reflects a dynamic that will continue to define Washington for the foreseeable future. Republicans have become more willing to buck the president’s wishes when they deviate from GOP orthodoxy. But on the issue of corruption, in particular, they will act as a phalanx. That is, to some extent, a result of the coming election cycle, in which their fates are tied. But, it more importantly points to a party increasingly bound together by an embrace of a corrupt and plutocratic approach to governance.

As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein perceptively wrote over the weekend, much of this dynamic is explained by Trump’s failure as a chief executive. Many of these decisions—particularly the appointments and the tariffs—appeared to have been largely improvised, and were carried out without consulting relevant leaders and stakeholders.

Similarly, for all Trump’s bluster, those who break from him rarely face consequences for doing so. “Trump has also cultivated a reputation as a paper tiger throughout his presidency,” Bernstein argued. “It’s true that people still talk about the possibility that Trump could turn on Republicans who oppose him and their renominations would suddenly be vulnerable to primary challengers. But in fact, Trump rarely follows up on threats, and his attention to anything is sporadic at best.” There was fear of the bully pulpit at one point, but not any longer.

As Bernstein also noted, we are in something of a Goldilocks period when it comes to members of the incumbent party breaking with the president. With 18 long months to go until the election, Republicans have little incentive to stay in line—that will change as November 3, 2020 draws nearer. But for the moment, they have used this break in the political calendar to punish the president for failing to adequately consult them and, perhaps more importantly, for breaking with them on tariffs. Trump’s trade war with China has been allowed to progress, albeit slowly. But, when tariffs on goods from Mexico produced an outcry from traditional Republican power bases, like the Kochs and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mitch McConnell and his caucus stepped in on behalf of big business.

But Senate Republicans are more notable for where they haven’t broken with the president. McConnell declared “case closed” on the Mueller report, despite the fact that it revealed over a dozen instances of likely obstruction of justice. There have been no efforts to hold the administration accountable for anything relating to Trump’s conduct in office, really. While House Democrats have a number of targets in their sights, the Senate has acted as a bulwark. There have been no efforts to get to the bottom of the disastrous handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, to investigate how foreign dignitaries are using Trump properties to influence policy, or how members of Trump’s family have used the presidency to enrich themselves. (Monday brought yet another entry in what has become an entire sub-genre of scandal coverage when The Guardian reported that a real estate firm owned by Jared Kushner’s family had received nearly $100 million in foreign funding from an offshore vehicle in the Cayman Islands run by Goldman Sachs.)

This is, to some extent, a reflection of the electoral calculus that has guided the GOP for much of the last two-and-a-half years: Trump must be protected for the sake of the party’s electoral future. But it also reflects the incredible corruption of the Republican Party itself. While there might be growing disagreements on free trade and tariffs, leaders are in lockstep on the idea that it is completely acceptable to use the government for corrupt ends. On Monday, for instance, Politico reported that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has used her office to steer grants to Kentucky, the state represented by her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:

The Transportation Department under Secretary Elaine Chao designated a special liaison to help with grant applications and other priorities from her husband Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky, paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection. Chao’s aide Todd Inman, who stated in an email to McConnell’s Senate office that Chao had personally asked him to serve as an intermediary, helped advise the senator and local Kentucky officials on grants with special significance for McConnell—including a highway-improvement project in a McConnell political stronghold that had been twice rejected for previous grant applications.

Chao was also in the news recently for boosting her family’s shipping company, which has deep ties to China.

It is, as The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman noted on Monday, “utterly mundane.” But it’s been repeated again and again during the administration, with both relative newcomers to government and veterans like Chao using their offices to benefit themselves and their families.

To some extent—some—this is how the system has worked for a long time. The Trump administration did not invent graft, influence peddling, or self-dealing, but this era’s excesses have revealed the extent to which this particular type of corruption has come to define the Republican Party and hold it together. Tariffs on GM products are a red line for Senate Republicans, but profiting from government service isn’t. After all, it’s good enough for the president.