So Don McGahn is in the president’s crosshairs. Whose side are you on?
I ask because this is perhaps the perfect test for a special subgroup of Donald Trump supporters. Call them the “But Gorsuchers.”
At the beginning of the Trump administration, when things got off to a rocky start, the go-to response from many Trump boosters was some version of “Yes, but we got Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.” As things got more chaotic, it became a joke to say, “Yeah, but Gorsuch” after every embarrassing revelation or disturbing tweet.
But from a conservative perspective that places a high priority on the court, this was an utterly defensible point of view. Many Republicans who were reluctant to vote for Trump only came around after he promised to pick judges exclusively from a list vetted by the conservative Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. This reassured the voters who took Trump seriously when he talked about putting his sister on the Supreme Court.
If the opportunity to put a conservative on the court — or deny Hillary Clinton a chance to do so — was why you ultimately voted for him, then “But Gorsuch” was a fair retort.
You don’t hear “But Gorsuch” often these days, for two reasons. The first is entirely to Trump’s credit — again from a certain Republican or conservative perspective. Brett Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court, too. Scores of excellent judges have been appointed to the lower courts. We’ve seen tax cuts, deregulation, the partial dismantling of Obamacare and a number of other conservative accomplishments on Trump’s watch. His supporters — reluctant and wholehearted alike — have every reason to count these things in the “pro” column.
Then there’s the second reason, which is less favorable to Trump. Whether you call it the party line, right-wing political correctness or simply a desire to cater to the president’s fragile ego, it’s simply not acceptable to publicly criticize Trump on the right. Prominent religious leaders feel compelled to dismiss Trump’s sordid sexual history. Passionate constitutionalists simply shrug or celebrate Trump’s words and deeds, no matter how contrary they may be to constitutional principles. You have to gush about his genius when there’s little discernible wisdom in what he does, and you must marvel at his courage when there’s none to be seen. Credit for Trump’s wins is all his; blame for his losses is all somebody else’s.
The “But Gorsuch” argument is also known as the transactional case for Trump. You don’t have to like or approve of what he does, but it’s worth putting up with because of the results. This is what you hear when you talk to Republican politicians and many prominent conservative activists and donors in private. But when was the last time you heard it on TV or talk radio?
Indeed, the demand that everyone see the emperor’s new clothes is so powerful that criticizing — or even being inconvenient to — the president’s preferred messaging is seen not only as a kind of treason but as proof that the critic isn’t really a conservative at all.
Which brings me to McGahn, who until recently was considered a widely respected, unimpeachably conservative lawyer. I have no idea what the former White House counsel’s personal views on Trump are. But based on his actions, he was at minimum a conservative transactionalist. He didn’t attack the president; he joined Trump’s team. It was McGahn’s job to shepherd Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and other judges through the confirmation process. By the time McGahn left the White House last year, not only had he scored two Supreme Court victories for the president, he’d been a Sherpa to 59 other federal judgeships.
Also, according to the Mueller report, McGahn may well have saved the Trump presidency by refusing to follow the president’s orders to derail the Mueller probe.
McGahn cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He didn’t want to; he was told to by Trump and his legal team.
Now, Trump is calling McGahn a liar. The president denies he told McGahn to fire Mueller. Trump and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, have insinuated that McGahn’s handwritten notes from his conversations with the president are somehow fraudulent.
We’ll see how things unfold, but it looks as if a lot of people, when forced to choose, will opt to throw McGahn under the bus, because loyalty to the president is now the definition of what it means to be a Republican or a conservative. And saying “But Gorsuch” won’t help McGahn.
Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, “Suicide of the West,” is now available wherever books are sold. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.