The right was on its heels there for a moment. But, with a week having passed since the Southern District of New York implicated the president of the United States in felony campaign-finance violations, the Republican firmament has digested the allegations and formulated a response. It’s no surprise that many (though by no means all) on the right have assumed a defensive crouch in solidarity with the titular head of the GOP, a figure whose political fortunes are directly tied to their own. What is jarring—and more than a little telling—is how their response has been almost entirely tactical.
So far, the most compelling defenses of the president’s conduct have been legal. His many denials notwithstanding, prosecutors allege that Donald Trump personally directed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to make illegal payments to two women with whom he had extramarital relations. Those payments were explicitly designed to fend off a potential sex scandal that could have altered the course of the 2016 presidential election.
What’s more, federal prosecutors believe Trump was personally involved in planning related to those disbursements. They can even place him in the room during a related conversation in August of 2015, one month after he announced his intention to seek the White House.
One of those payments was routed through AMI, the owner of the tawdry National Enquirer tabloid, which purchased the rights to a Trump paramour’s story only to bury it. According to prosecutors, AMI confessed that “its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election.” It doesn’t get more unambiguous than that.
Few on the right are arguing the facts of the case. What they’re claiming instead is that these revelations are insufficient to put the president in the dock, much less bracelets.
Lawmakers, including Senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, John Kennedy, and Orrin Hatch (who has since backtracked), based their defenses of Trump on the claim that these charges are not prosecutable. “I have said consistently that the Daniels and McDougall payments are not crimes,” Trump counsel Rudy Giuliani tweeted. “If this isn’t a witch-hunt, why are they pursuing a non-crime?”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board notes that “any sentient voter knew Mr. Trump had a bad history with women.” The paper’s writers suggest that U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami’s is acting more like a Democratic advisor than a prosecutor and claim that Democrats cannot pursue constitutional remedies against Trump without succumbing to fatal levels of hypocrisy.
And of course, all and sundry, including the president, note that these new allegations have nothing whatsoever to do with the claim that the Trump campaign accepted political assistance from the Russian government.
These are convincing arguments, but they are narrowly tailored. They sidestep the moral corruption that typifies the president’s conduct. And none of them dwell on how running block for an ethically destitute president can corrupt his defenders.
Donald Trump’s ardent advocates long ago compartmentalized the fact that the president had several affairs while he was with his third wife, some of which occurred only months after the birth of his youngest son. As many have observed, these self-appointed guardians made a strategic decision to subordinate inviolable moral imperatives to transitory political objectives.
That political calculation has no limiting principle and has compelled the virtuous to bunker down with the likes of Roy Moore—religious litmus tests, anti-constitutionalism, alleged improper sexual contact with minors, and all. “You know, you only have two cheeks,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins when he was asked why the religious right is so committed to the defense of Trump’s actions. “I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
This is a mighty illustrative comment. Perkins has given himself and his fellow evangelical conservatives license to dispense with constricting moral principles in service to a persecution complex. That sentiment is present to a lesser degree in arguments contending the Southern District of New York is holding Trump to a legal standard that would not be applied to a less politically tempting target.
That’s not factually inaccurate, but it is also a rationalization. Precious few on the right have said what the Washington Examiner editorial board wrote on the subject: Trump’s arguments in his favor are “perverse,” his associations “corrupt,” and his treatment of his wife immoral. Full stop.
It’s a wonder that more Trump defenders do not resent the position in which the president has put them. The compromises they believe they must make in service to a political contract—a deal in which Donald Trump is merely the executor—will invariably make future conservatives seem like opportunists when they defend moral absolutes and attack faithlessness both in marriage and in public service.
I know the president’s defenders think that kind of romantic ideal is a quaint, even naïve. This is the age of sharp elbows and hard-nosed politics, after all. But moral malleability and transactional value systems do not project strength.
The bargain the right has made with Trump is not merely Faustian; it’s terribly short-sighted. The elected leadership of the GOP is not full to bursting with Trumps. Just the opposite. The Republican Party is populated by flawed and fallible politicians, yes, but these are also conservatives who understand that their obligations to voters, faith, and family are static and unchanging. The party that was not so long ago led by the likes of Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush will again be guided by figures of virtue. They will need men and women of moral fiber in their ranks.
There will be a time after Trump. The conservative movement had better be prepared for it.