G.O.P. lawmakers have enabled all of the president’s misadventures up to now. They can’t disavow his response to the coronavirus.
Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board.
- April 30, 2020
Credit…Illustration by Nicholas Konrad; photograph by Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times and Getty Images
As the coronavirus pandemic creeps deeper into the election cycle, President’s Trump campaign team has a message for Republican lawmakers: Don’t even think about trying to socially distance yourself from the president’s handling of the crisis.
Mr. Trump’s leadership during this national emergency has not wowed the American public — at least not in a good way. The Republican faithful may continue to back him unconditionally, but polls show that a majority of the electorate gives him negative reviews.
And the shakier the president’s numbers look, the more nervous fellow Republicans become. On Monday, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, whose moral compass points always toward keeping his grip on power, cautioned that this year’s battle for the chamber would be “a dogfight” and a “knife fight” — choose your own bloody metaphor. Even with a favorable electoral map, Mr. McConnell & Co. fear that the president’s pandemic performance could hurt them in November. At the same time, Mr. Trump’s enduring popularity with the base means that his teammates cannot risk looking anything less than 100 percent loyal.
What’s a self-serving Republican to do?
The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently distributed a memo with guidance on how to split this political baby: When discussing the coronavirus, candidates should fully embrace the president’s efforts to shift the blame fully onto China. But — and here’s the part that caught Team Trump’s eye — “Don’t defend Trump.”
Prepared by a top party strategist, the bulk of the 57-page memo provides tips, talking points, timelines and background data geared toward making this crisis All About China. The “Short Version” summary suggests condemning China not only for causing the pandemic but also for stealing jobs, tossing religious minorities in concentration camps and flooding the United States with fentanyl. Democratic opponents are to be tarred as “soft on China” and unwilling to “stand up to the Chinese Communist Party,” they recommend, while Republicans vow to “bring our manufacturing jobs back home” and to work to punish China with sanctions.
Drugs, religious persecution, stolen jobs, commie lovers — the vilification blueprint offers something for every leg of the Republican stool and fits nicely with Mr. Trump’s trademark scapegoating: The weaker and less competent this president looks, the more vigorously he and his allies endeavor to gin up anger at an external enemy.
The trouble arises when the memo offers defenses to a couple of “Likely attacks/questions,” No. 1 being “Isn’t this Trump’s fault?”
Republicans are urged, in italics, “Note — Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China.” One bullet point suggests expressing gentle disappointment over the delayed response: “I wish that everyone acted earlier — that includes our elected officials, the World Health Organization, and the CDC.”
Gentle or not, Team Trump was peeved at the prospect of his Senate team treating the administration’s response as anything less than perfect — and, even more arrogantly, thinking of their political fortunes as somehow separate from the president’s. This could not stand.
Top officials from the Trump campaign swiftly moved to let the Republican Senate committee know it had messed up. On Monday, a Trump political adviser, Justin Clark, warned the Senate campaign committee’s executive director, Kevin McLaughlin, that any candidates engaged in such treachery should not expect support from the president’s campaign — and risked losing the love of the base. “Candidates will listen to the bad advice in this memo at their own peril,” Mr. Clark told Politico.
Confronted with this threat, Mr. McLaughlin backpedaled furiously. “There is no daylight between the NRSC and President Trump,” he responded. “Senate Republicans have worked hand in glove with the Trump administration to ensure a highly effective federal response to Covid-19.”
It is tempting to criticize the Trump campaign for its heavy-handed tactics and its demand for total obeisance from ostensibly independent lawmakers.
In reality, why should the president expect anything less? Most Republican senators made their pact with the devil long ago, letting Mr. Trump get away with pretty much whatever he wanted.
Even so, it has been their response to Mr. Trump’s handling of this pandemic that has shown what his Republican enablers are truly made of. Day after day, the president has come before the nation in news briefings and on Twitter, spreading not simply nonsense but dangerous nonsense — downplaying the risks of the virus, peddling quack remedies, misrepresenting the availability of diagnostic testing and protective equipment, picking fights with governors struggling to protect their states and, of course, deflecting blame onto everyone from the World Health Organization to the Obama administration.
Through it all, few Republicans have managed to muster even a peep of protest. And they have been happy to promote the president’s story that everything is China’s fault — just as they have supported his efforts to turn an apolitical pandemic into a partisan battle between red and blue states.
Senate Republicans have sold their souls to Donald Trump, and it’s absurd for them to pretend otherwise. When they try, they deserve to be smacked: by Democrats, by the media and, yes, by the president himself. Voters will have their say soon enough.
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