The standing national crisis that is Donald Trump’s presidency has reached a new inflection. But Trump’s future may depend less on new leadership at the Federal Bureau of Investigation than on the quality of partisanship in the House and Senate.
Though his motive in sacking FBI Director James Comey may (or may not) be less obvious than it appears, Trump is transparently attempting to kill an investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian agents who sought to undermine the 2016 U.S. election.
The news media understands this fact. Democrats in Congress understand this. Republicans, too, no doubt understand it. But as congressional Republicans have strayed further from democratic norms, and become more dependent on a hermetically sealed political environment bounded by conservative media and alternative facts, their tolerance of undemocratic behavior has grown.
Trump’s firing of Comey, in the midst of Comey’s investigation into Trump’s inner circle, was not enough to break the Republicans’ defensive perimeter. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, confronted with the crisis Wednesday morning, armed himself with little more than White House talking points. House Speaker Paul Ryan, after just a few months as a Trump hostage, appears incapable of independent thought or moral action. Individual pronouncements of discomfort, including murmurings from Republican Sens. Richard Burr, John McCain and Ben Sasse, are insufficient to check Trump’s action.
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Partisan lines have held. Now, Trump has every reason to ratchet up partisan tensions in the hope of strengthening them further. In the unlikely event that he can maintain sufficient reason and discipline to execute a strategy, picking partisan, rather than personal, fights is his best option.
What would it take to break down the partisan bulwark? Perhaps the appearance of a proverbial smoking gun would do it. But even that’s no sure bet. Core Republican voters, assisted by the gentle guidance of Fox News personalities, might never acknowledge such a gun exists.
There is, however, a single event that could alter the calculations of many Republicans in Congress – enough perhaps to alter the dynamics on investigating Trump and his allies.
The June 20 special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district could be it.
The district has a solid Republican pedigree but a paucity of love for Trump, who underperformed there compared with recent GOP presidential nominees and the district’s former representative, Tom Price, who joined Trump’s cabinet.
Polling and anecdotal evidence suggest Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff has a genuine shot at winning the race.
A Republican loss in Georgia would rumble through all but the safest Republican congressional districts. It would put a price tag on the cost of cooperating too closely with a White House determined to cover up an active investigation into potentially criminal, or even treasonous, activities.
Trump needs strong partisan protection on Capitol Hill to camouflage his attack on the rule of law. If Republicans lose a House seat in Georgia, the selfish ties that bind Republicans to him could begin to unravel.