In June 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss Republicans’ imminent nomination of then-candidate Donald Trump. There, he sought to calm the nerves of Trump-skeptical members of his party.
“I do think that the Constitution and the traditions of this county constrain all of us -- those of us in Congress and those of us in the White House -- from some of our impulses, shall I say, that we’d like to pursue,” said McConnell about concerns that a Trump presidency would resemble the chaos of his candidacy.
Three and a half years into Trump’s presidency, and it’s clear that congressional Republicans haven’t been the moderating force McConnell promised that day on CNBC. Far from McConnell’s assurance that Trump’s “not going to change the platform of the Republican Party, the views of the Republican Party,” the party has fallen in line behind Trump’s leadership. McConnell, for his part, has voted with Trump's agenda 94.2% of the time. Even Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), who distanced herself from Trump following the 2016 release of Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, has come around on the Republican standard-bearer, voting with him 95% of the time.
Whether it’s voting to confirm Trump’s questionably qualified and often extremist judicial appointments or clearing the way for acquittal in his impeachment case, Republicans have made very clear that they are his party now. Trump’s presidency is the product of his Republican enablers.
And that’s precisely why it’s so confusing to see article after article in mainstream media outlets reporting on the comments whenever Republican lawmakers do criticize him, however toothlessly. Those critiques often come when it’s politically expedient for the politicians to make them. For instance, as Trump’s poll numbers decline amid the chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest, congressional Republicans appear more willing to break ranks with him.
These lawmakers want to have it both ways. While continuing to buoy the president’s agenda with their votes and legislation, they have taken to publicly opposing aspects they find politically risky without actually using their power as elected officials to rein in anything they truly see as being out of bounds. News outlets, then, need to take more care in their coverage of these claims, examining the depth of the critiques.
Outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times hype the “chorus of Republicans” who push back ever so gently on Trump’s rhetoric and agenda.
In January 2019, The New York Times published a piece about McConnell’s “rebuke” of Trump’s foreign policy goals, noting that “the disconnect between President Trump and the Republican establishment on foreign policy has rarely been as stark.” Though several Republicans criticized Trump’s plans to pull troops from Syria and Afghanistan, they did next to nothing to actually prevent him from actually doing it. In October, the House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution condemning his Syria policy, but that was the extent of their actions.
An article in Navy Times said that such nonbinding resolutions let members of Congress “seem like they’re holding the president accountable without actually doing so.” If Congress actually wanted to act as a check on Trump’s foreign policy decisions, the article notes, its members could have held hearings or restricted military funding. They did neither.
Following Trump’s claim that there was blame to go around on “both sides” of a white supremacist rally where anti-racist protester Heather Heyer was murdered, The Washington Post wrote of the “chorus of Republicans” who “expressed alarm over Trump’s words and their potential cost with voters.” While Republicans may have “expressed alarm” about Trump’s embrace of white nationalists, any concerns they had didn’t rise to the level of actually doing anything about it.
More recently, mainstream news outlets have provided space for Republicans who may feel wary about Trump’s dwindling reelection prospects to separate themselves from him on his much-maligned response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in more than 140,000 American deaths to date. The Washington Post adopted the “chorus of Republicans” angle for a May article about Trump’s reluctance to promote wearing face masks.
“Fearing Political Peril, Republicans Edge Away From Trump on Pandemic Response,” reads a May 2 headline in The New York Times. In the piece, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) said, “You have to sort of thread the needle. I’ve been careful. I said, ‘Let’s look to the future,’ versus ‘Why didn’t we do this a few months ago?’ I’m not interested in pointing the finger of blame. I want to correct the issues.” At the heart of Upton’s comment is an implicit refusal to hold the president accountable for failures. To suggest that this was Upton truly trying to “edge away” from Trump is an overly generous interpretation of what Upton actually said.
Over the weekend, a New York Times article claimed that Republicans had started to “break ranks” with Trump on his response to the pandemic, citing a “quiet but widening breach” between lawmakers and the president.
McConnell, the Times wrote, “broke with Mr. Trump on nearly every major issue related to the virus” in recent comments.
While it’s true that there is some dissent coming from congressional Republicans regarding the pandemic, news outlets have a responsibility to highlight how transparently self-serving it is.
For instance, after Trump had protesters violently dispersed outside the White House in early June, the Times ran a piece about some Republicans’ supposed rejection of Trump’s “harsh response to unrest.”
Whatever their objections may be, they haven’t taken any action to prevent him from continuing the use of unidentified federal law enforcement officials to engage with protesters. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) plan to introduce legislation that would require federal agents to display identification on their uniforms. While this wouldn’t prevent Trump from using agents to police protests, it would impose a level of accountability that goes beyond shaking heads, furrowing brows, and making annoyed and forced public comments.
It’s become clear that congressional Republicans are increasingly concerned about Trump’s reelection odds and want to get themselves on the record as being opposed to his extreme actions -- or, as was the case with many aspects of the pandemic, inaction -- so that further down the line they won’t be held accountable for things he did as president. This is about salvaging their own reputation and hedging their bets on Trump’s legacy, and it’s important that news outlets make this clear in their own reporting. This is Trump’s party now, and journalists have a responsibility to hammer that point home in the face of the GOP public relations onslaught.