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“Threading the Needle” on Trump Is a Dangerous Game
You can protect national security. Or you can protect Trump. You can’t do both.
KEEP YOUR NICE STATIONERY in the drawer: There’s no need quite yet to start writing thank-you notes to leading Republicans for finally, possibly, partially acknowledging reality when it comes to former President Donald Trump.
Sure, some of them are saying aloud that maybe, if that gobsmacking federal indictment is true, even fractionally, he just might be careless—even a teensy bit reckless—about how he handles top national security secrets. Never mind that this has been clear since his first months in office. It’s who he is. It’s what he does. Any acknowledgment is welcome, even now, eight long years into this nightmare.
That said, those who publicly recognize Trump’s malfeasance don’t deserve praise for pivoting, shifting, or threading some needle between telling the truth about Trump and protecting their own ambitions.
The problem is that the concession is wrapped in lies at least as dangerous as Trump’s alleged actions themselves—lies that, like Trump’s Big Lie that he won the presidency in 2020, are designed to sow mistrust in American elections, institutions, and rule of law. Most GOP leaders are offering hedged concerns about Trump accompanied by fevered falsehoods about a two-tiered justice system weaponized by President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Department of Justice, and the FBI to go after, well, Donald Trump.
It’s enough to make you want to require critical race theory classes in every junior high school in America. Because, yes, kids, there is a legacy of systemic bias in this country, whether in housing, health care, education, or the criminal justice system, and it is not bias against rich white guys who used to be president. Or the supporters who have broken the law for them.
We have seen that it’s risky to spin and feed paranoid fantasies about federal officials and agencies. We saw on January 6, 2021, what happened when Trump persuaded thousands of people that he had been wronged, that they had been wronged, and that violence against the government—the government Trump himself had sworn to protect and defend—was the answer.
So: Full-on trashing and undermining of the government is being used to cover and distract from relatively mild, conditional critiques of Trump. This is a civic and physical hazard to America, and those with the least to lose are leading the way.
There’s GOP presidential longshot Vivek Ramaswamy at a mic Tuesday outside the Miami courthouse, camera-ready in a white “Truth” baseball cap, demanding that every White House candidate—including Biden!—pledge to pardon Donald Trump on Day One (Ramaswamy calls that “standing for TRUTH”).
There’s Fox News putting a chyron on screen calling Biden a “wannabe dictator” who had his “political rival” arrested.
There’s Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose 2024 re-election race could be tough, claiming that “Merrick Garland is prosecuting Donald Trump because he hates him—and Joe Biden doesn’t want America to have the chance to vote for him again” (although special counsel Jack Smith made the charging decision and conservative former judge Michael Luttig said any attorney general of any party would have brought charges).
There’s Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, who doesn’t face voters again until 2028, vowing to block Department of Justice nominees and grind DOJ to a halt “until Merrick Garland stops using his agency to harass Joe Biden’s political opponents.”
How rich is all that, given the ruthless GOP partisanship that denied Garland even a hearing on his March 2016 Supreme Court nomination, and Trump’s personal takeover of the DOJ the next year? He fired both FBI chief James Comey and his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, over the FBI-initiated Russia investigation; his second attorney general, William Barr, twisted that investigation to protect Trump before anyone saw the Mueller report; and after Barr refused to find nonexistent 2020 election fraud, he tried to install a hand-picked attorney general to help him stay in power.
THERE’S NO QUESTION THAT those with the most to lose—Trump’s best-positioned primary season competitors—have political challenges. To win the Republican nomination, they must peel off voters who like Trump. To stay viable as vice presidential choices, they need him to like them, or at least not write them off. It’s complicated. But on the other hand, as Vice President Kamala Harris said in another context, how dare they?
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave a master class in needle-threading this week. There’s no way Trump’s United Nations ambassador didn’t understand full well the security threat posed by his Mar-a-Lago hoarding antics. Still, her first instinct was to attack the indictment. Here is what she tweeted a couple of hours before the indictment was unsealed last Friday:
By Monday, though, Haley was going through this tortured sequence on Fox News: “When I was at the U.N., I mean, I saw that the president never got an ounce of credit or a moment’s peace.” (Her opinion, fine.) “I also had to deal with the Russiagate because that was what they were swirling around all the time and we saw that that was not a fact.” (Nope, that’s wrong.) “This is what I’ll tell you: Two things can be true at the same time. One, the DOJ and FBI have lost all credibility with the American people.” (Republican people, to be accurate.) “And getting rid of just senior management isn’t going to be enough to fix it. This is going to take a complete overhaul.” (Reminder, Trump chose FBI director Chris Wray, a Republican, and praised him to the skies.)
Also true, Haley went on, is that if the case holds, “President Trump was incredibly reckless. . . . More than that I’m a military spouse. My husband is about to deploy this weekend. This puts all of our military men and women in danger.” (No argument there.) But also, with a possible third indictment in Georgia after those in New York and Florida, Haley said her concern is “not so much about how this plays out” but “about the direction of the country. The fact that we cannot have Biden win this election. We cannot go through Biden or Kamala Harris winning this election. We’ve gotta have someone that can win a general election.”
The next day, Haley trivialized the federal indictment as “a documents case” and said that as president, she’d be inclined to pardon Trump.
HALEY IS FAR FROM an isolated case of dodging, weaving, and sticking to suspiciously similar talking points. We’re hearing about “the Russia hoax” and the supposed “two-tiered” justice system from former Vice President Mike Pence, even as he says that “I can’t defend what is alleged.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks about weaponized law enforcement that lets Democrats off easy while targeting Republicans like Trump. Sen. Tim Scott pledged to purge a DOJ weaponized “against a former president” and said that while the charges against Trump are serious, the Biden administration has been “targeting and hunting Republicans.” Former Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who almost ran for president but passed, used the same “two things can be true” formulation as Haley to gently chide Trump and hammer hard on federal agencies.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a break-glass-in-emergency presidential candidate for some Republicans, condemned “a two-tiered justice system where some are selectively prosecuted” and tied that somehow to Virginia parents who “know firsthand what it’s like to be targeted by politically motivated actions.” When he announced Monday that he was traveling to Normandy to pay tribute to his state’s World War II fallen, my first thoughts were thank goodness we didn’t have a president like Trump back then, giving away national security secrets, and doesn’t Youngkin see that connection?
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The safest GOP argument against Trump these days is that he’s unelectable. But that’s another critique that doesn’t warrant praise or credit. It’s a political calculation and, as Jonathan V. Last has written, it’s not necessarily true. It’s also a moral cop-out.
The clearest, most vocal GOP messengers against Trump are flawed. Barr is telling it like it is, but only lately. Same goes for Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and onetime Trump ally. But attention should be paid anyway.
Trump is unfit for office, and more prominent Republicans should be saying that flat out without burying it in baseless assaults on the pillars of U.S. democracy. Journalists sometimes use a “truth sandwich” technique to elevate facts above lies. The first and last statements are the truth and the false claim is buried in the middle, knocked down coming and going. What we’ve seen to date from these Republicans tepidly, timidly criticizing Trump is more like a lie sandwich: The acknowledgement of his misdeeds is surrounded by dishonest attacks on everybody and everything else. That’s got to change, and it won’t if Christie is the only Republican presidential candidate acting like it’s an all-or-nothing moment for America.