Trump has a loyalty problem
President Trump thinks he has finally figured out the problem plaguing his administration. It's not that he has done anything wrong. Rather, the issue is that Democrats are tough and unified, while his fellow Republicans are weak and treacherous. And he believes that gives Democrats an unfair advantage against him.
"They're vicious and they stick together — they don't have Mitt Romney in their midst," Trump said Monday about his Democratic critics. "They don't have people like that. They stick together. You never see them break off."
There are two points to be made about Trump's comments. The first is that he is wrong. The second is that if there is disloyalty within the GOP ranks, he is at least partially at fault — paying the price for his habit of throwing associates under the bus, time and time again.
Trump's comment about the Democrats having an advantage gives voice to an idea nearly all Americans share, and that's the certainty that one's own party isn't willing to fight hard enough, and that it is too divided to put up a united front, while the other party is tough and unified. Democrats believe this about Republicans. Republicans believe this about Democrats. Just about everybody believes their political side has an unfair disadvantage going against an immoral, powerful opponent. It's the Universal Law of Political Martyrdom.
So Trump is wrong about Democratic toughness. But he is right that his support is fracturing among Republican elites.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is the most prominent example, with his open criticisms of the president, but there are other signs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) just authored an op-ed criticizing Trump's Syria policy, and even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) seems open to impeachment now after spending the last two years ostentatiously selling his soul to Trump.
What is happening?
Trump's biggest problem — as impeachment creeps up slowly upon him — might be his habit of expecting loyalty and almost never giving it in return. Consider what happened to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions: He was the first establishment Republican to give support to Trump, and his loyalty landed him the role of attorney general, but he spent most of his term as the object of public derision and ridicule by the president himself before finally resigning.
History may not repeat, but it sure does rhyme. Former FBI Director Jim Comey lost his job in part because he couldn't give a loyalty pledge to the president. Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus helped bridge the distance between Trump and the GOP establishment, but was left on an airport tarmac for his troubles. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got his walking papers while sitting on the toilet. Trump expected the allegiance of those men — and many others like them — but terminated their careers in graceless, humiliating fashion.
The best way to inspire loyalty, of course, is to give some. But that has never been Trump's habit, and that may endanger his presidency now. We saw signs of this when his longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, became disillusioned, flipped, and testified before Congress. It has not gone unnoticed, too, that the Ukraine scandal exploded shortly after Trump unceremoniously dumped his national security adviser, John Bolton, a noted Washington infighter.
All that brewing dissatisfaction was bound to be trouble for Trump if one of his numerous scandals ever connected with the public. Well, a scandal has connected: The transcript of Trump's Ukraine phone call and acting Chief Of Staff Mick Mulvaney's "get over it!" non-confession confession of quid pro quo in the matter has proven to be a powerful smoking gun — a problem almost immediately compounded by the president's abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
Now impeachment is a certainty and the defections are cascading. Already, some executive branch officials are ignoring Trump's demands not to testify before the impeachment inquiry in Congress. Many of Trump's other subordinates, both current and former, must be weighing the costs and benefits of testifying against the president's wishes — and the likelihood the president will throw them under the bus at some point must surely play into their calculations.
If Trump's scandals continue to mount — a good bet — there may come a point where GOP elites decide the president is more trouble than he is worth. The Republican-held Senate was once implacably in the president's corner, thanks to his seeming political invincibility. Now the chamber could remove the Trump from office. The president isn't wrong that he would have a better chance of surviving the impeachment process if Republicans were to "stick together." But he is wrong to think he's done anything to deserve their loyalty.
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