GOP Senators Can’t Be Bothered to Read Trump’s Indictment
Plus: Inside the nationalist foreign policy summit in the Capitol.
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It’s been a wild few days in Washington. You will be shocked to learn that many Republican senators have opted not to even read the first federal indictment of a former president. Some people are so busy! Below are accounts of the conversations I had with several lawmakers who refuse to read it, as well as a few who actually did. We’ll also take a look at a summit of MAGA-inclined foreign policy thinkers that took place in the Capitol complex late last week.
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I was elected to lead, not to read
Ask any reporter who covered Capitol Hill from 2017 to 2021, and they’ll tell you that the most common thing they heard in response to questions, just about every day, was this:
“I don’t read the president’s tweets.”
Republican lawmakers used this easy out to avoid addressing former President Donald Trump’s often unhinged, bigoted, sexist, and sometimes even policy-shifting rants and gibes, which he posted at all hours of the day and night.
And now we’ve got a new version of that sentiment. When I went to the Hill on Monday to ask some of these same lawmakers what they made of the very serious allegations outlined in the federal indictment of Trump, many of them gave responses reminiscent of the standard ’17–’21 line. Except now, instead of Trump’s tweets, it’s formal accusations of his criminal wrongdoing that they’re refusing to read.
Here are some of the answers that I got from Republican senators when I asked them if they had read the indictment, and if so, what they made of the charges:
“I have not,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “I have been on the road, thank you very much.”
“I think everybody’s concerned, sure,” Ernst said of the obstruction charges, adding that it is “bad if that is all true.”
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) told me she hasn’t read it “because I have work to do,” mentioning her Federal Aviation Administration bill.
“I have gone through the summary on it but not gone through every page of it,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “But I did look at it. There’s lots of serious allegations under there. Every person is equal under the law.”
Steve Daines, the Montana senator running the Senate GOP’s campaign arm this cycle, said he hadn’t read it, and when I asked him why not, he responded with a silent, frozen half-laugh. Following this odd reply, he added that he is “concerned most about the fact that we’ve got a Department of Justice led by the president of the United States charging the [former] president of the United States who will likely be his opponent in 2024.”
But most peculiar among responses from the senators who didn’t read the indictment was that of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the Trump presidency.
“I haven’t read it at all. I’m not a legal analyst. I’m gonna leave that to the professionals to tell us about it. I’ve read everything I can of secondary sources of it, but not the original.”
Grassley also told me he was concerned that there are “two standards of justice” at play in Trump’s indictment. It’s unclear which secondary sources he would have drawn this conclusion from.
Was Grassley thinking of the editors at National Review, who characterized the indictment as “damning”? Probably not.
Maybe it was Jonathan Turley; the conservative legal scholar is a frequent guest at the Senate Republicans’ weekly luncheons, and he often appeared before the Judiciary Committee when Grassley helmed it, so presumably he would be someone Grassley would trust for solid legal analysis. Turley called the charges “extremely damning.”
Maybe Grassley consulted with Trump’s own attorney general, Bill Barr. Nope: Barr said that he considered the indictment—you guessed it—“very, very damning.”
(Adding a classic image of hellfire to bring home the perdition theme, Barr also said that if even half of the indictment is true, Trump is “toast.”)
Two Republican senators I spoke to did in fact read it: Ted Cruz (Texas) and J.D. Vance (Ohio). Cruz walked through the indictment in detail on his podcast The Verdict. In a tweet promoting the episode, Cruz wrote, “on [their] face, the allegations against Donald Trump sound serious—except for the problem that this is a president of the United States.” When I followed up with him about whether the obstruction of justice allegations—if true—would, in his opinion, disqualify Trump from being president again, he declaimed at length about the press not giving enough coverage to allegations of a bribery scheme between Biden and a foreign national. Perhaps we can expect another thorough podcast episode on that subject in the future, although I don’t expect Cruz will take the same line about the impunity he believes to be conferred by the office.
For his part, Vance made it clear that he isn’t ultimately concerned about Trump allegedly showing sensitive maps and attacks plans to individuals that were never authorized to see them, and he explained why:
I mean, all the allegations are serious, and having known Donald Trump, I’m sure that he’s had better weeks in his life. But the fundamental problem is, who controls the documents produced by the executive branch of our government? Is it the permanent bureaucracy, or is it the people’s elected president? I think it’s the president.
Vance this afternoon announced that he intends to block all nominations to Justice Department posts for the indefinite future—as long as Attorney General Merrick Garland is “using his agency to harass Joe Biden’s political opponents.” (Maybe he got the idea from Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who is blocking nominations to the Defense Department.)
Vance and Cruz aside, hardly any Republicans seem to want to read one of the most important documents in recent history—the federal indictment of a former president. But nearly all of them nonetheless want to offer their opinions on it—that it’s unfair, or that it’s “concerning” for what it implies about the politicization of law enforcement, or that we all ought to pay more attention to past unethical behavior by other politicians. This mode of politics—a kind of tactical ignorance—doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in these lawmakers.
The American Conservative foreign policy agenda: everybody hates us
As the Ukraine military launched its long-awaited spring counteroffensive last week, the biggest group of “America First” conservatives was simultaneously gathering in Washington for the American Conservative’s annual foreign policy summit, held last Thursday in the Hart Senate Office Building.
The summit’s speakers and attendees weren’t typical culture-warrior conservatives ranting about Pride gear at Target or Bud Light boycotts. While they might take up those topics in their free time, this was a serious foreign policy conference dedicated to the intellectual elaboration of the central tenets of Trumpism in the foreign policy sphere. The proceedings centered on American support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion—they believe it is unjust for the United States to provide this support—with some additional time set aside for the airing of grievances against the Washington foreign policy establishment.
Michael Anton, a senior national security official in the Trump administration and the author of the infamous “Flight 93” essay, lamented the continuing presence and political legacy of “the neocons” and mused about what it might look like if Trump—or some other likeminded Republican—were to take the White House from Joe Biden.
Anton’s proposals included reducing the number of detailees from various government agencies on the National Security Council, as well as loosening the security clearance process to make it easier to keep the NSC close knit and free of outside influence.
The goal of these reforms, Anton explained, is to provide the president’s administration with a stronger power base in the White House, the better to go to war against the federal bureaucracy:
You do all these things and you can have a staff of two or three hundred people inside the White House, completely loyal to the president and his agenda—and then those people will be a force to be reckoned with by the rest of the bureaucracy that will want to fight with him—as opposed to being essentially spies and enablers of the bureaucracy within the White House, which is what we have now.
It’s worth pointing out that these changes would result in members of the National Security Council being significantly less experienced and less qualified than their predecessors, and by quite a wide margin. But that’s fine with Anton, who added later:
I think a future administration needs to be a lot less concerned—certainly in positions that don’t require Senate confirmation—with credentialing. It’s like, well you don’t have quite the résumé yet to be x, y, or z—you’re too young. I’m not saying everyone should be 21 years old on the National Security Council staff, but they’re gonna need to be a little looser about that than prior administrations.
In addition, Anton expressed a desire for a Republican-controlled government that would reduce the number of Senate-confirmed roles in the national security space, thereby making it faster for a new administration to get to work. He did not address the fact that this would reduce the legislative branch’s checks on the executive branch’s power. He also did not acknowledge the unwillingness of senators—even Republicans cast in the same mold as Anton—to relinquish their own power in government, which such checks help to maintain.
Throughout the day, different Republican lawmakers stopped by the conference to make brief speeches. (Utah Sen. Mike Lee was an exception; his was rather long.) They all offered variations on the same theme: Supporting the Ukrainians is not in the United State’s best interests, and the foreign policy establishment opposes any Republicans who speak up about this, even to the point of ostracizing them for their unconventional views. Anton cited the example of former Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the QAnon-supporting conspiracist and former national security advisor who was “drummed out of the [Trump] administration in 24 days.”
“So one of the few people that the president had who understood his agenda and was gonna try to faithfully implement it, they fixed on and got rid of quickly,” Anton said.
Since the war’s outset, the Ukrainians have made remarkable gains in the face of dire odds, but TAC’s panelists tended to brush these aside while hitting several familiar talking points: It’s taking too long, it’s costing too much, every additional dollar to Ukraine raises the risk of World War III, etc. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) even lamented that the Ukrainian spring offensive came too late, telling the crowd, “We were told we were gonna wait for a spring offensive. A spring offensive supported by western munitions and supplies. June on my calendar is not the spring.” (I confirmed with the U.S. Naval Observatory that spring 2023 runs until June 21, as it does every year.)
The speakers and panelists at TAC’s event were correct about one thing: They are very much a minority in Washington. The Biden administration is steadfast in its support of Ukraine, and so are most lawmakers from both parties. Even within the GOP, nearly every relevant House committee chairman (Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence) is on the record vocally supporting Ukraine and current U.S. foreign policy when it comes to aiding and arming the Ukrainians defending their country against Russia’s invasion.