Welcome Back to the Chaos of the Trump Era
Mardi Gras comes next Tuesday, but Republicans decided to throw a wild carnival a week early. With disarray on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and at the Republican National Committee, yesterday was a throwback to the vertiginous days of the Trump administration. Lots of data show that Americans aren’t paying close attention to politics or don’t believe Donald Trump will really be the Republican nominee, but each bit of Tuesday’s chaos had Trump’s fingerprints all over it—offering a partial preview of what life will be like if Trump is reelected in November.
The most surprising fiasco was in the House, where a vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas unexpectedly failed. As I wrote last week, the impeachment never made much sense: Republicans were mostly angry at Mayorkas for policy choices, and the Senate was sure not to convict him. But the House plunged ahead anyway, until suddenly it screeched to a halt. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican and no one’s idea of a squish or a renegade, announced that he would oppose the vote and withstood pressure to flip, joining two other Republicans—Ken Buck and Tom McClintock—in opposition. Meanwhile, Democrats wheeled Al Green of Texas onto the floor following a surgical procedure, still in scrubs, to guarantee that the measure wouldn’t succeed.
That wasn’t the only flop. The House also failed to pass a bill with aid to Israel, which garnered a majority but needed two-thirds of the chamber. A coalition of Democrats and hard-right Republicans sank the bill.
Underlying the drama was a banal truth: Speaker Mike Johnson doesn’t have a grip on his caucus. Maybe no one could manage such a thin majority, but his task will be even harder after yesterday’s failure. (Johnson vowed to try again on the Mayorkas impeachment. We’ll see.) The inexperienced Johnson is speaker thanks to Trump, who cheered on conservative rebels against former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and refused to save him. Johnson’s rise was due in part to his starring role in attempts to overturn the 2020 election. (An irony: If McCarthy hadn’t resigned after his ouster, Republicans might have had the votes yesterday.)
Things are barely going better for the Senate Republican caucus. Over recent months, that group hatched what seemed like a clever plan to entrap Democrats. Rather than pass a bill with aid to Ukraine and Israel, which the White House as well as many GOP members wanted, it would tie those issues to tighter security at the southern border. That would force Democrats to support policies that the GOP wanted, or else to vote against them and face political blowback on immigration, Trump’s favorite campaign issue.
But Democrats called the bluff. President Joe Biden and many of his allies said they’d embrace stronger border measures (to the noisy chagrin of some other members of the party). Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma led negotiations to create a bill that would garner bipartisan support. He had the backing of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a strong supporter of aid to Ukraine and Israel.
This week, negotiators finally unveiled the bill. It was already on life support by the time it emerged: Trump made clear that he opposed the bill, because he and other Republicans didn’t want to give Biden a win on the border so close to the election. Johnson forecast the bill’s demise in the House, and it promptly gave up the ghost in the Senate as well. Biden immediately attacked Republicans for failing to pass border measures that they’d insisted were an existential need. The GOP had fallen into its own trap.
Anger over the collapse quickly turned toward McConnell, the longest-serving Republican Senate leader in history. Unlike Johnson, he is recognized—with admiration by fans, and frustration by Democrats—as a highly effective manager. But yesterday, hard-right members such as Ted Cruz and Mike Lee called for new leadership in the Senate. For now, McConnell may be going nowhere, but his health has seemed shaky over the past year, and Politico speculates that he would be unable to retain his leadership position if Trump returns to the White House, because the two men’s always-tenuous relationship has totally collapsed.
“I feel like the guy standing in the middle of a field in a thunderstorm holding up a metal stick,” Lankford lamented last week, before lightning struck. “The reason we’ve been talking about the border is because they wanted to, the persistent critics,” McConnell told Politico. “You can’t pass a bill without dealing with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate.”
McConnell is right, but no one in his caucus wants to hear it. As for Lankford, his mistake was believing his colleagues when they said they wanted a bill that would tighten the border, and then trying to write one. But the Trump wing of the Republican Party isn’t interested in policy—it’s interested in sending signals. The MAGA crowd would rather impeach Mayorkas, even if they know he won’t be convicted and it won’t change anything, than enact a law that actually affects the border. The point is expression, not legislation.
Speaking of sending signals, Trump seems to have gotten his wish and deposed Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee. McDaniel was his own choice for the role in 2017, and she’s been a loyal backer. She even quit using her maiden name, Romney, when her uncle Mitt became one of Trump’s most implacable critic; after promising to stay neutral in this year’s presidential primary, she has pushed Trump challengers to drop out.
But Trump has become disenchanted with her for various reasons, including insufficient loyalty and insufficient enthusiasm about his claims of election fraud in 2020. That’s one reason he is reportedly favoring Michael Whatley, the RNC’s general counsel and chair of the North Carolina GOP, who has been a prominent proponent of election denial, to be her replacement.
Election denial is also at the heart of the former president’s prosecution in Washington, D.C., on four felony charges related to his attempts to subvert the 2020 election. Amid everything else, a federal appeals court yesterday roundly rejected his argument that he should be immune to prosecution, likely clearing the way for a trial to move forward. Trump’s arguments in that case were always a stretch, but one common motif of the Trump presidency was federal courts dismissing flimsy arguments mounted mostly for the sake of buying time. That, too, is back.
It’s exhausting. Surveying the wreckage last night, GOP Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina told The New York Times, “The conservative base is going to have a real problem with this. And they should. The conservative base does not deserve this.” Norman is wrong, though. This is exactly what the conservative base has voted for and exactly what it deserves. Unfortunately for the rest of the country, everyone’s fates are bound together.