WASHINGTON – “Convictions tighten squeeze on Trump” and “Trump’s moment of truth is at hand,” read two of many banner headlines about the recent sensational testimony of the president’s former lawyer. Yet through it all, President Donald Trump has learned he can count on the unwavering support of Republican leaders.
“How does this implicate the president?” was the laconic comment of senior Republican Sen. John Cornyn.
That reaction typified his party’s response to the sworn testimony Tuesday by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that Trump had directed him to pay two women for their silence to avoid damaging scandals on the eve of the 2016 presidential election.
On the same politically jarring day, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted on several counts of bank and tax fraud.
And yet nothing the president does seems able to provoke a revolt among Republicans — whether it is the protectionist policy he pursues in a traditionally free-trade party, his conciliatory attitude toward Russia in a party long leery of its Cold War foe, or his alleged extramarital affairs in a party that claims to embrace family and religious values.
Analysts say that with crucial midterm elections only months away, Republican candidates fear saying anything that might offend a president who remains popular among most of the party faithful — and who savors his ability to make, or break, a candidate with a single tweet.
Manafort was the first person to be tried in the highly sensitive investigation of suspected collusion between the Trump team and Moscow during the 2016 election. While the trial dealt with Manafort’s personal finances, the verdict brought the shadow of special counsel Robert Mueller ever closer to Trump’s inner circle.
But none of this appears to have shaken the faith of the president’s supporters.
“There have yet to be any charges or convictions for colluding with the Russian government by any member of the Trump campaign,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
A New York Times editorial on Thursday summed up Republicans’ response this way:
“Congressional Republicans have been operating under a see-no-evil policy with President Trump: ignoring his lying, his subversions of democratic norms and his attacks on government institutions or, when that’s not possible, dismissing such outrages as empty bluster.”
Trump’s capacity for survival has surprised even some of Washington’s most experienced political hands.
“The only thing that I can see making a real difference in the loyalty shown by Republican officeholders is if Mueller comes forth with a very strong and thoroughly documented report of collusion and obstruction,” said Christopher Arterton, professor emeritus of political science at George Washington University.
Robert Bennett, who was president Bill Clinton’s personal lawyer in the Paula Jones sex-scandal case in the 1990s, said that in his 50 years practicing law in Washington, “I’ve seen time and time again things which would be a death blow to most normal human beings. And he (Trump) walks right through it.”
Trump’s secret? The still ardent support of his electoral base, which will be key to Republican candidates in November, when the Republican majority in both houses of Congress will be at stake.
“As long as that support appears solid, leaders in Washington will give lip service to supporting Trump (and complain privately and off-the-record that he is taking the party down),” said Arterton.
Trump has a powerful and influential ally in Fox News, the cable network with the largest U.S. audience, which is ever quick to sing his praises — a favor he often returns.
In the 24 hours after the Cohen bombshell, Fox focused not on his sensational suggestion that Trump had ordered payments to an adult film star and a former Playboy Playmate, but on the murder of an attractive young white woman, Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly by an undocumented Mexican immigrant.
In an election-style rally Tuesday evening in West Virginia, Trump did not mention Cohen, instead invoking the death of Tibbetts. The following day he tweeted a link to a video about her to his 54 million Twitter followers.
Republican Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, openly acknowledged the president’s strategy.
“If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble,” he said in an email to the Axios news site.
But “if we can be blocked by Manafort-Cohen, etc., then (the Republicans) could lose the House badly.”