I waited a few days before writing about the GOP reaction to the Mueller Report because, well, I have apparently learned nothing. Naively, I had hoped that Mitt Romney’s statement about dishonesty in the White House would jar, or at least jostle, some other consciences among his fellow Republicans.
In fact, all it did was to highlight (once again) how badly late-stage Trumpism has shrunken those consciences. What we got instead was the usual combination of foot-shuffling, denial, and silence.
On Monday, the Washington Post’s Phillip Rucker suggested that “Romney is saying exactly what his Republican colleagues in the Senate believe but are afraid to say.” But five days after the report’s release, Romney is still the only GOP senator to break with the ranks of GOP pusillanimity.
Iowa Senator Joni Ernst said: “I think we all know who the President is, he has a brash demeanor, that’s about all I can say.”
Maine’s Susan Collins thought the report offered an “unflattering portrayal of the president,” while Ohio senator Rob Portman was only able to muster enough indignation to declare that the report had revealed “ a number of actions taken by the presidents or his associates that were inappropriate.” [Emphasis added.]
And the rest? This video from Republicans for the Rule of Law captures the GOP silence (Disclosure: RRL is a project of Defending Democracy Together, and The Bulwark is a project of Defending Democracy Together’s sister organization, the Defending Democracy Together Institute):
In contrast, Romney’s statement was pointed: The former GOP presidential candidate said that he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President. I am also appalled that, among other things, fellow citizens working in a campaign for president welcomed help from Russia.”
But even Romney pulled his punches. “It is good news,” he wrote, “that there was insufficient evidence to charge the President of the United States with having conspired with a foreign adversary or with having obstructed justice.”
I have now read the redacted Mueller report and offer my personal reaction: pic.twitter.com/ACnExskqXJ
— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) April 19, 2019
As Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey noted, this was not quite right.
Romney’s statement begins with an outright falsehood. Mueller did not find insufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstruction. To the contrary, he found ample evidence but declined to make the finding in light of OLC guidance that the president cannot be indicted. https://t.co/F8DY9yFys6
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) April 19, 2019
Even so, compared with his fellow Republicans (current Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld being notable exceptions), Romney’s comments amounted to a fiery philippic against the president.
So the reaction was predictable.
As usual, Trump himself set the tone, putting out a tweet mocking Romney for losing his 2012 race against Barack Obama, complete with a video of a defeated Romney.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2019
Inevitably, Trump’s loyal court jester, Mike Huckabee chimed in:
Know what makes me sick, Mitt? Not how disingenuous you were to take @realDonaldTrump $$ and then 4 yrs later jealously trash him & then love him again when you begged to be Sec of State, but makes me sick that you got GOP nomination and could have been @POTUS https://t.co/dmidOraRGQ
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) April 19, 2019
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani escalated the attack: “Stop the bull. Stop this pious act that you weren’t trying to dig up dirt on people, putting dirt out on people,” Giuliani said, without providing either evidence or context. “What a hypocrite.”
And, naturally, Rush Limbaugh joined the scrum as well.
Rather than criticizing Trump’s behavior, he said, Romney should have been sickened by the Mueller report itself (we’ve come a long way from “exoneration”) which Limbaugh said had been put together by the “same people who accused Mitt Romney of being a despicable creep. The same people who claimed that he didn’t care when his employees died of cancer because Romney didn’t give ’em health care.”
Romney doesn’t even see what went on here because, as a member of the establishment, as a Republican, you’re supposed to take it when they dish this character assassination out at you. Like Romney took it. Romney let them lie about him in all these ways, and he still wants to be on their team, still wants to be on their side. That’s what’s sickening, is that people in the Republican Party like Mitt Romney cannot even see the precariousness with them this nation came to being overturned by a bogus investigation that was actually a coup!
Notably, none of the attacks on Romney’s comments offer any substantive defense of Trump, nor do they even attempt to answer any of Romney’s points. In TrumpWorld all attacks are ad hominem, without even a feint at either facts or logic.
On the left, there were scattered expressions of support and even admiration, but they were overwhelmed by critics who tweeted out variations of “so what are you going to dooooo about it?” And there were numerous references to Jeff Flake, who has become a meme of ineffective opposition.
All of this goes a long way to explaining the dynamics of the GOP in the age of Trump: Dissent is met with angry denunciation and mockery, with little in the way of even “strange new respect,” from the center-left. For most Republicans, breaking with Trump is simply not worth it.
So what we are left with is rationalization and silence.
Of course, we’ve been here before. My very first piece for The Bulwark dealt with the blistering reaction of the Trumpist right to Romney’s earlier critique of Trump, his op -ed in the Washington Post raising questions about the president’s character.
Here is where Romney has performed a useful service: He has exposed the extent to which the acceptance of Trump’s character hardened from tactical improvisation into habit—and this habit has now become full-blown intellectual justification.
This requires not just an alternative reality—one that ignores a lifetime of narcissism, deception, and dishonesty—but an inverted moral hierarchy in which Trump’s character isn’t just something to be apologized for, but is transubstantiated into something that is both necessary and beautiful.
The release of the Mueller report reminds us again of the extent to which Republicans have adjusted their moral and ethical standards, at least in public.
So, once again Mitt Romney is a pretty lonely guy.