A political brawl is brewing in Washington that doesn’t involve Republicans fighting Democrats or liberals battling conservatives. It’s a conflict within the political right about whether to start putting some distance between conservatives and President Donald Trump.
The clash has intensified with the revelation this week that the president’s son and son-in-law, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 presidential campaign in hopes of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton. The Justice Department and committees in both houses of Congress are investigating the Trump campaign’s connection to Russian efforts to undermine the Democratic candidate.
One set of conservative elected officials and influential media figures wants to find a way to start withdrawing support from Trump, worrying that the drumbeat of revelations about his team’s contacts with Russia could derail their policy agenda. The contrary view is that Trump’s continued popularity with Republican voters gives them a chance for substantive achievements if they stick with him, whatever his deficiencies.
The issue is further complicated by what Republicans in close contact with the White House describe as a dysfunctional presidency. White House Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, they say, now focuses mainly on directing the Republican National Committee, which he used to head, and which is described as impotent. Kushner, who has been given a wide policy portfolio, is distracted by investigations into the Russia probe. Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, the nationalist adviser, is seen as the keeper of the hard-core flame, but not as a manager capable of curtailing the chaos, at times bordering on panic, afflicting this presidency.
One closely connected conservative says the president’s functional chief of staff is Trump himself. If true, that would be as self-destructive as a doctor diagnosing his own serious illness or a lawyer defending herself in a big case.
Many conservatives are sticking with Trump. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Florida, dismissed the significance of the meetings with the Russian lawyer, saying he might have done the same thing.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called the story “overblown.”
The right-wing media, spearheaded by talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox television anchor Sean Hannity, are attacking Trump critics, especially Republicans.
But there are cracks. The New York Post, owned by the conservative power broker Rupert Murdoch, editorially called Trump Jr. “an idiot.” A story on the Fox News website charged that the junior Trump’s meeting will provide fodder for the Justice Department investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, predicting that “much of it will be unhappy for the president,” and asking, “What else is the campaign hiding?”
Conservative journalists — the Trump right disparages them as the elites — like columnist Charles Krauthammer and David French of National Review, suggested that emails between Trump Jr. and a go-between for the Russian lawyer show that Trump associates at least tried to assist Russian efforts to aid the campaign.
On Capitol Hill, some conservative Republicans simply didn’t react to the meeting at all, while others urged patience as the Mueller investigation proceeds. Significantly, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who has been a stalwart Republican partisan and skeptic of the Russia probe, was more critical. And he said he had confidence in Mueller.
That complicates the efforts of Trump allies like Newt Gingrich to discredit Mueller, and undercuts the president’s charge that the investigation is a partisan “witch hunt.”
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.