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The Media Is Falling for Republicans’ New Anti-Trump Narrative

Senators John Cornyn and Ben Sasse are trying to con the public into believing they didn’t lick Trump’s boots for four years. Will they get away with it?

Stefani Reynolds/Pool/Getty Images

If Donald Trump is voted out of office next month, expect the ranks of the Resistance to suddenly swell.

For all the chaos of the last four years, Republican support for President Trump has been steadfast and seemingly unshakable. Now, with Trump trailing in some polls by as many as 15 points, some Republican senators are claiming that they not only never liked him but have quietly done everything they could to thwart him.

Late last week, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska lit into Trump for spending “like a drunken sailor,” kissing “dictators’ butts,” flirting “with white supremacists,” disdaining organized religion, and being wildly corrupt. Over the weekend, Senator John Cornyn of Texas got in on the fun, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he had opposed the president’s spending, border wall, and Covid-19 response. But he claimed he did so privately and in secret, noting that public opposition led to ridicule and barbed tweets.

As for the Trump presidency as a whole, it has been a disappointment. Cornyn said it was “maybe like a lot of women who get married and think they’re going to change their spouse, and that doesn’t usually work out very well.”

Sasse and Cornyn are both in the midst of reelection campaigns that may have influenced their decision to speak up. Sasse, having survived a primary challenge, is coasting toward reelection, which means he can safely say whatever he wants about Trump. Cornyn is fighting off Democrat M.J. Hegar, which means he’s feeling the need to distance himself from Trump’s cratering presidency.

But both are also previewing an absurd line we’ll hear again and again during Biden’s first term, should it come to pass: that Republicans didn’t really back the president. They’ll say they quietly opposed him, even as they voted with him nearly 100 percent of the time and supported him through numerous self-inflicted crises. It’s not a question of if they’ll do this, but when, with Sasse and Cornyn showing us that some Republicans aren’t waiting for the results to come in on Election Day. The big question is whether they will get away with it.

The idea of a secret Trump resistance within the White House and Republican Party has been a minor subplot of the past four years. Bob Woodward’s Fear presented Gary Cohn as the republic’s last line of defense—he would pluck executive orders off the president’s desk, blocking trade wars that would have wrecked relationships with key allies and ratcheted up global tension. One still-anonymous administration official wrote a bombshell New York Times op-ed titled “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” as well as a book about the president’s unfitness for office.

A number of people who worked closely with Trump, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Chief of Staff John Kelly, have brought their complaints to the press, calling the president everything from “a moron” to “the most flawed person I have ever met in my life.” Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security official, has appeared in ads for Joe Biden and written a Washington Post op-ed warning that “the country is less secure as a direct result of the president’s actions.”

Accompanying these noble efforts is always a hefty—and usually transparent—amount of ass-covering. Knowing full well the stink of the Trump administration will linger well into the future, these former officials have done their best to make the case that, actually, they were on the side of the good—they just happened to be working for the bad guy.

Still, these people did risk something—though not always a lot—to make the case against Donald Trump. Sasse and Cornyn are more akin to rats fleeing a sinking ship.

There are many things that Sasse and Cornyn could have done, had they really been concerned about the direction Trump was taking. Both, for instance, voted against calling witnesses during the president’s impeachment trial. According to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker, Cornyn voted with Trump 95 percent of the time, with Sasse towing the line 87 percent of the time. These are hardly the voting records of people agonizing over the fitness of the president. They had leverage, and they failed to use it.

The actual history of the Trump era is all about Republican complicity. Republicans like Sasse and Cornyn got what they wanted: tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy and hundreds of conservative judges. Trump got what he wanted: to behave however he wanted with near-total impunity. Trump’s corruption, bigotry, and authoritarianism were all deemed acceptable by the GOP and were veritable planks of the party’s platform.

Sasse, Cornyn, and other Republicans are attempting to gain just enough distance from the president that they can, come January, emerge as principled critics of a President Biden. They can point to comments they made when Trump was trailing in the polls, but still very much in office, as proof that they are not hypocrites. They care deeply about government spending, corruption, and fitness for office—and will resist just about anything a hypothetical Biden administration pushes for on this flimsy premise. They’re preparing to run the same full-court press the Republican Senate ran against Barack Obama in 2009.

That these are people who don’t believe in anything should be patently obvious—all the more so given their sudden reversal on Trump. These reversals have bamboozled the media, which has never really figured out what to do when big-spending Republicans transform into deficit hawks as soon as Democrats take power. But this goes beyond mere hypocrisy: It’s the latest evidence that the entire GOP is unfit to govern and operating in bad faith, which everyone should remember when they start complaining about the next Democratic president.