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Elise Stefanik’s Deranged Defense of Trump Offers Democrats a Lesson

Even many Republicans can smell that the conventional wisdom about Trump’s legal woes helping him is about to change. Democrats need to play hardball.

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik endorses Trump
Adam Glanzman/for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Congresswoman Elise Stefanik endorsed Trump in Concord, New Hampshire, on Friday.

When it comes to Donald Trump’s legal travails, there are two general schools of thought among Democrats. In one, a jury’s finding that Trump is liable for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll—and his pending trials for many alleged crimes—largely confirms what voters have already concluded about him, rendering these things far less important to voters than more pressing “kitchen table” issues.

In the other school of thought, Trump’s legal difficulties are producing reams of new information about his specific guilt on multiple fronts. In this theory, Democrats should draw voters’ attention to that new info because in some sense, it does tell us something freshly compelling about just how debased Trump’s character and penchant for serial criminality truly are.

In recent days, New York GOP Representative Elise Stefanik has offered a bizarre defense of Trump that lends support to that latter school of thought. Her efforts show that the precise nature of all this new information about Trump is making it much harder for Republicans to defend him, a dynamic that will surely get worse.

Stefanik’s display came amid questioning from an NBC News reporter about a jury’s conclusion that Carroll proved that Trump did sexually abuse her in a department store dressing room nearly 30 years ago. The whole exchange is worth watching:

At first Stefanik falls back on the stale MAGA talking point that the focus on Trump’s sexual assault is a media witch hunt. But when reporter Vaughn Hillyard points out that a jury reached this conclusion, Stefanik was at first nonplussed, then got angry, and then repeated those talking points with a vehemence bordering on derangement.

Notably, the Trump campaign barred that reporter from a subsequent campaign event. That plus Trump’s recent unhinged barrage of attacks on Carroll suggest he’s deeply worried about this story’s political impact.

Stefanik’s response got more unhinged on Monday, when Trump’s appearance in a courtroom on the Carroll matter was postponed. That delayed Trump’s plans to attend the trial (apparently to show his base he’s fighting the witch-hunters, which does play to Trump’s advantage in GOP primaries), and Stefanik immediately raged that “blatant election interference” was at work.

In reality, the trial was delayed because both a juror and even Trump’s own lawyer Alina Habba reported feeling ill. The ham-handedness of Stefanik’s effort to discern a nefarious conspiracy behind the delay shows it’s getting harder to defend Trump as his legal challenges enter advanced phases.

Meanwhile, CNN’s Manu Raju asked numerous Republican lawmakers if they will support Trump if he is convicted of a crime. While some MAGA stalwarts said they would, others—such as Senator John Cornyn and Representative Dusty Johnson—pulled a homina homina homina and dodged.

What’s changed now is that Trump’s legal challenges are unfolding in courtrooms—in public-facing venues—before juries of the ex-president’s peers. It’s becoming impossible to fabricate conspiracy theories around the ordinary Americans whose judgment Trump faces, and the gravity of the proceedings is suddenly getting a lot more real.

All this suggests Democrats should actively draw attention to Trump’s legal travails. True, in 2016, voters were aware of Trump’s boast on video about committing sexual assault, and some argue that Hillary Clinton’s campaign showed the limits of campaigning against his debauched personal qualities and ethics.

But with Trump now being prosecuted for numerous crimes, both the details of these charges and the role of ordinary Americans in serving up grand jury indictments constitute new fact sets of a much more serious nature. These involves concrete, vividly detailed efforts to seize power illegally and steal national security secrets, as well as a jury’s conclusion that Trump committed sexual assault, which is more compelling than his bragging ever was.

“We have a lot of new information to share with voters,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told me. “It’s important that we update their understanding of who he is. He’s a far more degraded candidate than he was in 2020.”

The struggle of Stefanik and other Republicans to address Trump’s legal problems illustrates another rationale for Democrats pressing the issue: It could put GOP downballot candidates on defense too. “Democrats would benefit from having Republicans on record in regards to Trump’s deep ethical and legal troubles,” said one senior Democratic strategist involved in congressional races. Confirming the point, when Stefanik recently described the people who attacked the Capitol as “hostages,” vulnerable House Republicans rapidly distanced themselves from the remark.

Even Republican Senator John Thune admits he’s “worried” about Trump’s appeal in the “middle of the electorate,” pointedly noting that this could hurt Republicans downballot. A Washington Post poll finds that large majorities of independents view the prosecutions of Trump as legitimate under the law. And as Ron Brownstein details, a fair amount of data shows that a small but nontrivial swath of educated, moderate Republican voters remain concerned about Trump’s assaults on democracy and alleged crimes. So Thune’s fear seems reasonable.

As Democrats debate how they should handle all this, the 2020 election may offer clues. In some ways, Covid-19 froze the political debate on Trump’s handling of the pandemic, sidelining his countless other degradations. But Kate Bedingfield, a chief strategist on President Biden’s 2020 campaign, points out that on Covid, Democrats successfully tied Trump’s deranged personal displays—the denialism, the unconcern about blue state cases, the talk of bleach injection—to his disastrous Covid-related policy failures.

Democrats could attempt something similar by tying Trump’s sexual assault to his boasting about appointing the Supreme Court justices who helped overturn abortion rights. “He has no respect for women’s bodies,” Bedingfield told me. “The way he’s treating E. Jean Carroll is yet another reminder of how little he thinks of a woman’s right to make her own decisions—of a woman’s autonomy and freedom.”

As Stefanik revealed, Democrats have much to gain from forcing Republicans to defend Trump’s capacity for debasement and criminality. Democrats shouldn’t assume voters are fully aware of just how deep that capacity runs. In this regard, it appears, there’s always more to learn.