In the aftermath of the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Republican lawmakers and leaders face the most unpalatable set of choices yet in their relationship with President Trump. They are caught between disgust over his failure to unequivocally condemn neo-Nazism, a desire to advance a conservative agenda and fears of rupturing the Trump-GOP coalition ahead of the 2018 elections.
Recent condemnations of the president by Republican lawmakers have been harsher, more frequent and sometimes more personal than in previous moments when Trump went beyond what is considered acceptable behavior. Many GOP leaders are now personally wrestling with the trade-offs of making a cleaner separation with the president, while finding no good options.
To some in the party, the hesitancy to act more boldly in response to Trump’s handling of the Charlottesville violence — specifically his angry news conference Tuesday — falls short of what they believe this moment demands.
“At what point does a principled party stand up for its principles?” Tom Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania and homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush, asked in a midweek interview.
Ridge, a longtime critic of the president, added: “You can’t be afraid of losing an election because you stood up for what was right. A party of principle requires leadership. But at this time, we’re kind of rudderless. We need a chorus [of opposition] and we didn’t get it. . . . And frankly, if we did that, I think most Americans would applaud.”
What Ridge is calling for publicly is what some Republicans are asking themselves privately, which is whether a more direct break with the president is either advisable or possible. There are indications of private conversations underway within Republican circles about the president’s behavior and whether, after seven months in office and a new chief of staff who many GOP officials hoped would temper the president’s behavior, there will ever be a change. Many are concluding that the answer is no. The next question is what to do.
It’s clear that, as of now, many Republicans — lawmakers, leaders and strategists — have reached a pair of uncomfortable conclusions. First, whatever they and a majority of the public believe about the repugnancy of the president’s comments, they believe Trump was duly elected as president on the Republican ticket and that he retains a deeply loyal following within the party. They are reluctant to go against that Trump base.