It has become easy to understand Donald Trump’s affection for coal miners. The president and the miners work underground — and each week Trump finds a way to descend to new depths.
As Trump heads to Florida on Wednesday for a “listening session” with students, it is important to remember the president’s most egregious recent mouth-off session.
That was his inflammatory Saturday tweet in which he suggested that the FBI could have prevented the Parkland massacre if the Bureau were not “spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.”
The Republican attacks on Trump for implying that the FBI has blood on its hands were delivered in the muted tones of a parent not wanting to wake a sleeping baby.
Typical was South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who took pains to say on “Face the Nation” that the Florida shooting and the Russia probe were (drum roll, maestro) “two separate issues.” Only outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich — who represents a branch of the Republican Party that may no longer exist — had the gumption to tell CNN that Trump’s tweets were “absurd.”
It is easy to conjure up the excuses that congressional Republicans murmur to themselves as they stay silent in the face of Trump’s outrages.
“I am in Congress — and not working in the White House. I’m not responsible for everything that Trump says.”
“Trump’s just bored and blowing off steam. The best thing to do is to ignore it.”
“With the Democrats piling on, I’m not going to criticize a Republican president.”
“What’s the upside to getting involved for me?”
“I’m in a tough re-election fight. The last thing I need is to split the GOP base.”
“What if Trump starts attacking me on Twitter?”
“Now just isn’t the time. I’ll save my ammunition for later.”
This collective timidity has contributed to a presidency that refuses to take any steps to protect the sanctity of American elections in 2018 and beyond.
The Trump White House has been handing out temporary security clearances like they were valet parking receipts at Mar-a-Lago. Yet the silence from congressional Republicans over special treatment for Jared Kushner (the presidential son-in-law with the error-filled financial disclosures) has been deafening.
Even without mentioning the name Robert Mueller or the dread noun “collusion,” responsible Republicans (alas, a dwindling breed) must be troubled by the blithering incompetence of the chaos-theory Trump White House. How many unfilled jobs in the administration and incoherent public statements on legislation does it take to undermine confidence in a president?
Granted, for Republicans who believe in income-transfer programs (as long as the money heads to the already wealthy), the tax bill represented an excuse to maintain a semblance of party discipline. But now the 2018 legislative agenda is pretty much reduced to naming federal buildings.
Daisies will be bursting through the sidewalks on the Capitol grounds and unicorns will be grazing on the Mall before Congress approves Trump’s hollowed-out plan for America’s hollowed-out infrastructure. And all Trump did was sow discord as the Senate tried to codify legal protections for the Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came here as children.
Maybe as periodic rumors bubble to the surface about the possible retirement of Anthony Kennedy — the swing justice on the Supreme Court — Senate Republicans might still feel the need to band together for a potential confirmation fight.
But the line, “I’m supporting Trump because of the courts,” doesn’t carry much weight in the House, where members have no constitutional role in approving federal judges.
It is possible that I am missing the reality that Republicans in Congress are being sincere — that, in the blink of an eye, they have collectively all become nativist opponents of immigration, fierce foes of free trade and isolationists thrilled at the notion that Russia and China will be running the world.
Could they all be mesmerized by the globe-girdling vision of a former reality show host who is bumping along with a presidential approval rating just above 40 percent? Has the Republican Party become the Trump Party simply because the congressional GOP senses that we are at a rare moment of presidential greatness?
Watch: How The Senate Immigration Debate Stalled
Since the Democrats hold a reasonable shot at winning back the House (with the odds going up with the new Pennsylvania redistricting map) and the GOP already faces the indignity of a Democratic senator from Alabama, it is hard to believe that the Republicans see in Trump a path to a permanent congressional majority.
That is, unless the GOP has a secret plan to repeal the 19th Amendment and limit suffrage to white men who watched TV westerns like “Bonanza” and “Wagon Train” during the 1950s.
Many liberals have come to believe that the Republican Party is a burnt-out hulk, devoid of convictions and integrity. But I refuse to accept that a political party (whose prior two presidential nominees before Trump, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were honorable opponents) can morph into a cult of personality that easily.
What I do know is that the Republican excuses for enabling Trump and ignoring his nonstop assaults on decency grow weaker with each passing day — especially since Trump brings to this Faustian bargain neither prudent leadership nor electoral salvation.
When the histories of these dismal Trump years are written, congressional Republicans will be called upon to justify their conduct. Somehow their inevitable line, “It was easier to go along,” will not rank up their with Ronald Reagan’s invocation of “a shining city on a hill.”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
After a Facebook user posted an old satirical Onion spoof on teachers, guns and the National Rifle Association as an expression of her political opinion on the gun control issue, one of her buddies on the social media platform lamented, “I can’t tell Onion headlines from NYT and WaPost ones any longer.”
In this case, the issue was the Parkland school tragedy, hardly the stuff of satire, but when it comes to digital literacy and political discourse in general, this exchange only illustrates a larger point, that some folks may need a crash course in just how to tell when they’re being played — by the Russians or anybody else.
At a recent Department of Homeland Security meeting on election security, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill put it this way: “The biggest threat seems to be from the American public believing false stories that were told out there during the last election.”
But let’s put the blame, at least in part, where it belongs. Russian fingerprints can be found on too many of the false memes and narratives that conned too many Americans and helped fuel one of the most divisive elections in memory.
Last week’s indictments of 13 Russian nationals by special counsel Robert Mueller outlined chapter and verse how our cyber adversaries used new technology and social media to disrupt the 2016 presidential election and erode American social order, by spreading a steady diet of disinformation and propaganda through outlets from political media to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
We learned that neither Democrats nor Republicans, progressive nor conservative activists were spared the destructive attentions of the Russian troll factory that began its information warfare program in 2014 with a budget of more than a million dollars a month.
Unwitting Trump and Clinton backers were duped by Russians masquerading as American activists using sophisticated online personas and virtual private networks to create, in essence, a cyber false flag that not only misinformed the public and provoked voter outrage but actually impacted campaign events and activities.
When a pro-Trump rally and an anti-Trump protest headlined by Michael Moore were held on the same day in New York City days after the election, neither side knew that both events were the creatures of Russian information warfare.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reported in his announcement of the Mueller indictments that there was “no allegation that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity.” That is good news for both President Trump and the political process.
But it still leaves the country clearly vulnerable to more of the same from the Russians and other cyber criminals determined to use new technologies to undermine our elections and sow social discord of every kind.
There was a time when we had safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our electoral process from external interference. The Foreign Agents Registration Act and strict prohibitions on noncitizen campaign contributions, for example, were effective in defending our elections from undue outside influence.
But cybertechnology has dramatically changed our electoral environment with the potential to affect voting systems, ballot security, voter rolls and registration, and campaign communications, and equally sinister efforts to chip away at voters’ confidence in their own democracy.
While the Russians have a long history of attempting to influence our elections, it is a combination of a digitally unsophisticated electorate and new cyberwarfare technologies that puts our country and our democratic process at risk. While there is no evidence that hackers, Russian or otherwise, have managed to change election results, we do know that voting systems in 21 states were targeted by Russians for attack.
Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections
Tom Kellerman, a cybersecurity expert, told Fox News, “The endpoint security on most of those voting systems are outdated and can’t match up to the modern-day weaponry being created by the Russian cyber adversaries.”
Clearly, if we are to defeat the Russians on the cyber battlefield, the federal government and the states need to step up their game. Time is short, especially given government’s dismal track record of adopting new technologies quickly or effectively.
Still, it’s important to put Russia’s interference into perspective. Yes, they achieved a part of their mission by further tearing apart a country already bitterly divided by partisan politics, and so we should expect more of the same as we head into the 2018 and 2020 elections. But Rosenstein also stated, “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
There is no way to know definitively whether the Russians had any impact on the election results, but an objective analysis of postelection data indicates it is highly unlikely.
Our election night Winning the Issues, or WTI, survey asked voters to rank 20 issues by importance in terms of their vote decision. Republicans and independents ranked “allegations of Donald Trump and ties to Russia” 19th and 20th respectively while Democrats put the issue at 15th. These questions were asked on Election Day so respondents did not know the presidential outcome when answering.
Similarly, in our most recent WTI survey (Jan. 24-25), we asked voters to rank the importance of a series of issues and news stories on how they are likely to vote in this year’s congressional elections. Of the 17 options, “allegations of Donald Trump ties to Russia” came in dead last among Republicans and independents but ranked fifth for Democrats.
In a Twitter post late Friday, Rob Goldman, vice president of ads for Facebook, described the Russian disinformation campaign this way, “The main goal of the Russian propaganda and misinformation effort is to divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media, against us. It has stoked fear and hatred amongst Americans. It is working incredibly well. We are quite divided as a nation.”
I agree. We may have not yet lost the disinformation war or even the battle for voting system security, but the deep anger driving partisan politics in America today should concern everyone — Republicans, Democrats and the media.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.
Mitt Romney is running for Senate. He found new political life by bashing President Donald Trump — who on Monday proceeded to endorse him anyway. (Even a candidate video that sideswiped Trump at least twice wasn’t enough to deter the president.)
If we’re all lucky, Trump will stick with his endorsement and ease Romney’s path to succeed retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch in Utah, a state Romney won as a presidential hopeful in 2012 by a nearly 50-point margin over Barack Obama.
Romney was long ago branded a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by conservative activists, but that should be a feature for Republicans looking to hold the Utah Senate seat, not a bug.
Having Romney join the Senate, where he’d bring a moderate temperament and a handful of opinions that stray from what constitutes a Trump Republican these days, would be good for the GOP, good for America’s two-party system, and even good for our democratic institutions.
I know it’s hard to see how a man nicknamed “Mittens” in his last bid for the White House can save the republic.
But if you need proof that RINOs like Romney are essential to our democratic system, look no further than the indictments last week handed down by special counsel Robert Mueller, which detailed the incredible lengths Russian actors had gone to with the strategic goal of dividing Americans leading up to the 2016 elections.
Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections
On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, teams of Russian social media specialists posed as Americans and created “political intensity” by supporting radical groups, opposing social movements, and sympathizing with users dissatisfied with their social and economic situations. The indictment also says Russians traveled to the U.S. and obtained visas under false pretenses, hired Americans to stage rallies designed to be offensive to other Americans, bought ads micro-targeted to Americans most vulnerable to provocative political content, and crafted messages encouraging minorities not to vote at all.
When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictments last week, he said the ultimate goal of the entire Russian plot was to “promote discord and undermine democracy” in the United States.
We also know from recent reporting that Russians are still just as engaged in dividing Americans against each other as they ever have been.
After the horrible school shooting in Florida last week, Russian bots flooded social media platforms to push divisive messages about gun rights and gun control. Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California, told The New York Times that the Russian bots “are going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration.”
Every time Americans attack one another over politics, every time Congress retreats to its partisan corners on contentious issues like immigration or climate change or gun control, we are doing the Russians’ job for them. They want divisions, personal attacks, no agreement and no progress. Without voices in the middle looking for consensus and progress, that job gets easier for the Russians every day.
Voices in the middle aren’t just essential for our democracy, they’re also crucial for our two-party system. They’re extremely healthy for the Democratic and Republican parties, both of which make life harder for the moderates in their parties than they should.
Whether it’s Sen. Susan Collins in Maine or Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, senators willing to find bipartisan solutions to the country’s problems have been the connective tissue between the two parties and the fuel for action on Capitol Hill. It’s no coincidence that as polarization has increased, the list of accomplishments on Capitol Hill has dropped like a rock.
For the GOP specifically, which has long prided itself on being “the party of ideas,” that’s a problem. Republicans’ ideas seem increasingly to come from the far right of the party and remain unchallenged until they’re unveiled to be voted on quickly. But undebated ideas are weak, and undebated principles aren’t principles at all — they are talking points.
On the day Romney announced his Senate run, he spoke at a Utah fundraiser and detailed the issues that had brought him back to politics, including addressing poverty and reducing carbon emissions.
Romney also praised the benefits of immigration, highlighted the atmosphere of respect on Utah’s Capitol Hill and, in speaking about gun violence, said, “We can’t just sit and hope and wait for things to get better.”
Romney’s comments were the stuff of RINO consensus-building that has made moderate Republicans on the right and DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) on the left an endangered species in Washington these days. But we kill off RINOs and DINOs at our own peril.
I’ve been reading a lot about endangered species lately (long story). In the process, I’ve learned that while all endangered species are important in their own ways, some endangered species are more important than others. The most important are the “keystone species,” which play a role in the survival of other animals, and in some cases, the survival of the habitat they all share and need to live.
RINOs and DINOs are Washington’s keystone species. The political ecosystem — even the super-predators who believe they should get credit for their own survival — cannot live without the ones who keep the place functioning and in balance.
Mitt Romney always seemed to believe he was meant for the most important job in Washington. If he wins his race, he may find that joining the Senate as a voice of moderation in an era when our very democracy is under attack is the most important job he could ever have.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.