The Post’s Robert Costa reports:
Several Senate Republicans were privately stunned Wednesday and questioned the White House’s judgment after it released a rough transcript of President Trump’s call with the Ukraine president that showed Trump offering the help of the U.S. attorney general to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
One Senate Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said the transcript’s release was a “huge mistake” that the GOP now has to confront and defend— while the party argues at the same time that House Democrats are overreaching with their impeachment inquiry of Trump. . . .
“It remains troubling in the extreme. It’s deeply troubling,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters Wednesday, when asked about the transcript.
Well, that is one way of putting it. To be sure, Trump’s ridiculous lackeys in the Senate have tried to suggest there is nothing in the transcripts to be concerned about, but that is not even flying with everyone in their own caucus.
Even Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who had cast aside any qualms about Trump and given up criticism of the president, acknowledged it would be “really, really bad” for a foreign power to get involved in our election. More troubling still, Sasse later in the day declared that “Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons to say there’s no there there when there’s obviously lots that’s very troubling there.” Uh-oh.
I would suggest that the entire political calculus involving Trump, his presidency and the 2020 election has shifted dramatically in the past 24 hours. Trump has been caught red-handed trying to enlist a foreign power in digging up dirt on a political opponent as he dangled U.S. aid to that country. What is more, Trump was too clueless to realize how damaging this was. His fitness for office and his political judgment as a candidate for reelection are so obviously defective that Republicans would be silly to rally behind him. From now until 2020 they will be asked over and over again: Do you condone this conduct? It is impossible for any of them to seriously defend what has been revealed already in the rough transcript.
Costa’s reporting also finds that “One early divide among Senate Republicans is between the ‘Burr camp’ and the ‘Johnson camp,’ according to two senior GOP aides who were not authorized to speak publicly, referring to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. Burr’s faction of the Senate GOP has a darker, frustrated view of Trump’s handling of Ukraine, while Johnson has linked the Ukraine issue to his committee’s work into reviewing the launch of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails while serving as secretary of state.” It is a mystery why Johnson should throw himself into the fire for Trump, especially since details of the whistleblower complaint, a potentially even more damaging document, have yet to come out.
The first guideline for Republicans who want to survive this debacle is to stay out of the “Johnson camp.” The ability to distract the public and waylay the press is minimal at this point; every news outlet in the country and every reasonable voter who cares to read the transcript knows Trump’s actions are beyond the pale. Whether they are on the ballot in 2020, the last thing they want is video of them defending this sort of lawlessness and/or carrying Trump’s dirty water.
Second, Republicans should begin considering 2020 alternatives right now. Even if Trump survives this episode and all the other scandals (e.g., emoluments, self-dealing) he will in all likelihood be grievously damaged going into 2020. The states that have canceled primaries should strongly consider un-canceling them. A party must have options when the incumbent president is damaged as Trump already is.
This also means that Republicans who had passed on a challenge, such as former Ohio governor John Kasich and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, should give serious consideration to getting into the race. The potential for Trump’s support in the country at large and even within the GOP to plummet is real for the first time in his presidency. They should be candid about their role: The president, whatever Republicans think of him, is mortally wounded as a candidate for reelection. No one associated with this mess (e.g., Vice President Pence) will be able to take Trump’s spot. They need a Republican entirely divorced from this behavior who has consistently called out Trump’s corruption.
Republicans should recognize that their own political survival and that of the party’s in 2020 will depend on the degree to which both can entirely dissociate themselves from Trump’s abuses of power. That may be impossible for characters such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) who have appeased and enabled Trump from the start, but it is not too late for other Republicans to save themselves.