Since the time he secured the Republican nomination for president, people have been asking, "When are Republicans going to finally distance themselves from Donald Trump?" Now, after one of the worst weeks ever experienced by an American president who wasn't assassinated, we're getting an answer. Sort of.
Don't worry — we haven't seen any grand profiles in courage, at least not yet. But for the first time, we're seeing enough elected Republicans criticize and contradict the president that it no longer seems surprising when one of them does it.
The most dramatic instance of a Republican standing up to Trump was of course that of John McCain, who cast the deciding vote to kill (for now) the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. With less glowing attention from the media, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski held firm against it, too; Murkowski had to withstand the secretary of the interior calling to threaten that if she didn't get in line, the administration would punish Alaska for her intransigence.
There were lots of good reasons having nothing to do with Trump why those three didn't sign on to that bill, not least that it would have been extraordinarily destructive to Americans' health care and politically disastrous to boot. But there are other ways in which Republicans are showing they're more directly perturbed with the president. His almost sadistically cruel treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions — telling every interviewer who'll listen how disappointed he is in Sessions, insulting him over Twitter, yet not firing him — has particularly annoyed the attorney general's former Republican colleagues in the Senate who count him as a friend.
Then there was Trump's tweet announcing a blanket ban on transgender Americans serving in the armed forces, which swiftly drew criticism even from such staunch conservatives such as Orrin Hatch, Joni Ernst, and Richard Shelby. And in a stunning move, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia over the White House's objections, leading to retaliation from the Kremlin. It was only four years ago when Trump asked plaintively about Vladimir Putin, "Will he become my new best friend?" The answer appears to be no.
To be clear, this isn't some kind of dramatic tipping point, after which Trump will be the target of a deluge of denunciations from elected Republicans. They know that their fates are still tied to his, and if he fails, they'll be the collateral damage. But they're also seeing the value in some strategic distancing. With Trump's approval in the 30s, they don't seem all that afraid of his wrath — particularly when he does things they know will be unpopular. They'll continue to be cautious about criticizing the president, but he'll also give them plenty of opportunities to show they aren't his lapdogs.
It doesn't help that Trump can't tamp down that dissent with an appeal to party loyalty. Politicians who have devoted their careers to the Republican Party were uneasy about being led by someone without strong party ties, and since becoming president he's only made it clearer that he wants little to do with the GOP. As Tim Alberta points out, when Trump booted Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, he lost his most important connection to the GOP "establishment" — which, much as he and his core supporters might scorn it, is still an entity he desperately needs if he is to succeed.
Who will provide that connection now? Not John Kelly, the new chief of staff — he's a military man who might or might not be able to impose discipline on this unruly White House, but he doesn't have the same kind of political relationships with Republicans on Capitol Hill. Not Jared Kushner, the president's closest adviser, a political neophyte. Not Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist — unlike Karl Rove, who played that role for George W. Bush, Bannon has no deep roots in the party and is justifiably regarded with suspicion by loyal Republicans. While there are midlevel staffers with those party connections, none of them are in an influential enough position to help determine the path the administration takes. Which means that the people closest to Trump don't have much of an ability to keep restive members of Congress in the fold.
If you're a Republican watching the carnival of crazy that is the Trump White House — the unfortunate firing of the infinitely entertaining Anthony Scaramucci on Monday was only the latest shocking news — you probably don't want to count on the president or his aides for much of anything. They might have your back, and they might achieve victories that help the whole party — but it's not something you'd want to bet your career on. It might be wise to invest now in some gentle but clear disagreements. That way if the worst happens, you can say, "I never really believed in him anyway."