What could be more surreal than to be trying to follow the critical Senate vote on the Affordable Care Act, only to be buffeted by stories of the vulgar language Trump’s new communications director Anthony Scarammucci used to describe his White House colleagues, not the least chief-of-staff Reince Priebus? No matter, within 24 hours, the GOP effort to repeal was dead, and Priebus was gone, an especially inglorious exit for a man whose mainstream Republican credentials were unequaled. Priebus had said he wanted to stay at least until the final vote on health care, and in that he got his wish. But something more fundamental transpired with his departure than simply another victim falling to Trump’s animus.
Michael Continetti, editor-in-chief of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, nailed it this morning in a New York Times column under the title, “Trump Goes Rogue.” By hiring Scaramucci and firing Priebus, he asserts, “President Trump has sent a message: After six months of trying to behave like a conventional Republican president, he’s done. His opponents now include not only the Democrats, but the elites of both parties.”
It’s hard to imagine what a conference committee might have done with the Affordable Care Act had a Senate bill passed. Clearly, House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows was not going to let a watered down repeal go forward if he and his far right supporters could help it. But the GOP would have had to wrestle with that obligation nonetheless, and, in the process, continue to confront the divisions within its ranks. Now the playing field looks different.
Unreprimanded for his language and clearly supported in his threats not just to get rid of Priebus but everyone responsible for leaks, Scaramucci has heralded a new stage in the Trump presidency when candidate Trump’s anti-establishment instincts can be expected to rule over any pretention of striving for harmony within the GOP.
Despite the obvious blow to the establishment, GOP leaders have been reluctant to criticize Trump’s turn in direction. Ryan, McCain, and others praised Priebus for his service, but didn’t attempt to defend him. Rather, they cheered incoming chief-of-staff John Kelly. Could they possibly ignore what they might be facing down the road?
Over the weekend, Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, reached back to the administrations of John Tyler and Andrew Johnson for analogies to administrations this much in turmoil. He was careful to stress that both men assumed their positions on the death of the president and thus could not be considered quite the outsider to party politics that Trump is.
Johnson’s presidency, however, is especially suggestive. Deeply resentful of his social superiors, he chose to exercise his power to effect reconciliation after the Civil War by requiring slaveholders to seek his personal pardon. That individualized and permissive approach to reunion, along with his clashes with GOP stalwarts in his cabinet, ultimately pitted Johnson against his party. In the off-year election of 1866, Johnson actively campaigned against GOP congressional candidates. That his efforts failed ingloriously and led to his own party bringing articles of impeachment against him should send a chilling message to Trump, but don’t count on it. Rather, I think we can expect Trump’s attacks on individual Republicans to escalate.
The question remains what will the GOP “elite” do about it, before they face the prospect of Trump campaigning against a number of their own candidates in 2018, as Richard Nixon did in 1970 when he actively opposed Charles Goodell’s re-election to the U.S. Senate?
It’s no secret Trump wants to fire Robert Mueller as special council. There’s virtually no internal constraint on that action at the White House now. Will Jeff Sessions fill the role of Johnson’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton by being pushed out to satisfy the president’s will? Would such action prompt further Republican defections, even to the point of joining an impeachment effort?
There’s little sign the GOP establishment is yet geared for such a fight. They’re too focused on cutting taxes, a goal made more difficult by the failure to kill Obamacare. And yet, it’s clear the gauntlet is down. If Republicans are anything but the zombies Paul Krugman accuses them of being, they should be moving into high alert. And it’s not just Democrats they should be worried about.