The Daily 202: What would it take for the Republican base to stop trusting Donald Trump?

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US President-elect Donald Trump. (File Photo: Xinhua/IANS)

A Washington Post/ABC News poll in late April found that 81 percent of Republicans think President Donald Trump is honest and trustworthy – compared to 38 percent of Americans overall and 34 percent of independents. In the spring of 2016, not long before he secured the GOP nomination, just 46 percent of self-identified Republicans said Trump is honest and trustworthy. Immediately after the convention in Cleveland, that popped to 69 percent and continued to rise after his November victory.

Besides becoming their party’s standard bearer, what specifically has Trump done in the past 15 months to persuade one in three Republicans who thought he was dishonest that he can now be trusted?

The knee-jerk reaction to James Comey’s very credible and very serious allegations this week, which the former FBI director made under oath and has contemporaneous notes to back up, is the strongest proof point yet of the rising tribalism that has infected our politics.

We saw a similar dynamic two weeks ago when many GOP apparatchiks rallied to the defense of Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte after he physically assaulted a reporter.

And it has not stopped at the water’s edge. When Barack Obama was president, a Post-ABC poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported missile strikes against Syria in response to Bashar Assad using chemical weapons against civilians. After Trump did it, 86 percent of Republicans supported strikes for the exact same reason.

It’s easy to forget amidst the donnybrook, but Comey has been a card-carrying Republican virtually all of his life. George W. Bush appointed him as a U.S. attorney and, later, deputy attorney general. He was a hero on the right when he rebuked Hillary Clinton as “extremely careless” last summer, but attitudes have shifted now that he’s going after Trump. A Post-ABC poll conducted this week found that just 27 percent of Americans believe Trump fired Comey “for the good of the country.” But 71 percent of Republicans did.

We’ll know soon if the hearing moves the numbers, but don’t hold your breath. The Post’s Joe Heim interviewed a couple from Florida watching in the bar at Trump’s D.C. hotel. “I’m sticking by his side to the end,” said Scott Cowpland, 61. “If he wants loyalty, he’s got our loyalty,” added Ann Mytnik, 56.

— Trump Friday morning reacted to Comey’s testimony by calling him a liar:

Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication…and WOW, Comey is a leaker!

— Sometimes it feels like the president’s M.O. is: I know what you are, but what am I? When someone attacks him for something, he quite often lobs the same charge right back at who he perceives to be the accuser. Recall how Trump started talking about Bill Clinton’s infidelity last October after he got caught on tape boasting about being able to get away with groping women because he’s a celebrity. Then he appropriated the term “fake news” after the election.

— Comey – fired one month ago – repeatedly called the president a liar as he fielded questions for more than 2 1/2 hours from senators on the Intelligence Committee.

On why he agreed to testify: “The administration . . . chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.”

On why he took detailed notes: “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said in the most memorable sound bite of the day. “If there are tapes, it’s not just my word against his . . . All I can do is hope. The president surely knows whether he taped me. . . . Release all the tapes!”

— Trump has long been adept at muddying the waters by employing the crisis management playbook that he learned from Joseph McCarthy’s protégé Roy Cohn. The difference this time: He can count on the official Republican Party apparatus to do his bidding.

The Republican National Committee deployed a whopping 60 staff members as part of its rapid-response “war room” effort to counter-punch at Comey, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“The RNC’s output was punchy, snarky and at times contradictory,” The Post’s David Weigel reports.”It neatly captured the fog of confusion that the president’s defenders wanted to churn.”

Even Trump’s former political opponents, including Marco Rubio and John McCain, acted sort of like his political defense team, The Post’s Paul Kane writes.

Many other Republican lawmakers simply dismissed Comey’s testimony as a nothing-burger. The best quote illustrating this comes from Politico’s Burgess Everett: “I never did think it was going to amount to much, because first of all there’s nothing there,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told reporters. “But people around here just love to make something out of nothing and that’s basically what you have there. Tell me otherwise.” Then Hatch added: “Of course, I haven’t been in the hearing.” Let that sink in: Hatch did not watch the hearing, yet he said it proved “there’s nothing there.”

— Rather than directly challenge Comey’s version of events, the Republican leadership team in Congress decided to defend what he described as the mere fumbling of an inexperienced politician. “The president’s new at this,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said at a press conference. “He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between the DOJ, FBI and White House. He’s just new to this.” – from The Post’s Mike DeBonis.

That defense just doesn’t pass the smell test. Trump, 70, has been dealing with the federal government since the Justice Department came after him four decades ago for allegedly discriminating against African Americans at his rental properties. He’s also earned a reputation as one of the most litigious people in the business world.

–Legal experts, meanwhile, said Comey’s testimony clarified and bolstered the case that the president obstructed justice, The Post’s Matt Zapotosky reports.

— But sitting presidents do not get indicted on obstruction-of-justice charges. It is Congress that must ultimately determine if his behavior deserves impeachment.

— There is a chicken-egg dynamic at play. Most rank-and-file Republicans look to their party leaders for cues about what to believe, but these same lawmakers are waiting on the base of the party to turn on Trump before they find the “courage” to say publicly what many of them already believe privately.

— This window-dressing is unlikely to change until members of Congress conclude that the cost of standing with Trump exceeds the risk of defending him. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said during a private appearance last week that the president could cost her party the House. “Any Republican member of Congress, you are going down with the ship,” McSally warned, according to the Tucson Weekly. “And we’re going to hand the gavel to (Nancy) Pelosi in 2018. They only need 28 seats and the path to that gavel being handed over is through my seat. And right now, it doesn’t matter that it’s me, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done. I have an ‘R’ next to my name and, right now, this environment would have me not prevail.”

— Erick Erickson warns his fellow Republicans that their blind loyalty to Trump is going to damage the party bigly in the long-term. “If your goal is to stop the left, all Trump is doing is both emboldening them and driving independent voters to them,” he explains in a new piece for The Resurgent. “Soon he will be a catalyst for a leftwing resurgence if Republicans do not sort this out themselves.”

— The challenge for the politicians who would like to make a break is that Trump supporters who dwell in the alternative-reality fever swamps of the Internet were thrilled by the hearing, which they believe somehow offered total vindication of their president.

WHY THE CREDIBILITY GAP MATTERS:

— Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, released a statement after Comey’s testimony saying that the president “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone.” He also denied that Trump ever asked Comey for “loyalty” in “form or substance.” But Kasowitz refused to answer any questions.

— “I can definitely say the president is not a liar,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders added during her afternoon briefing.

This quote is certain to become infamous. “Such protestations from any White House are never a good thing,” Todd Purdum writes for Politico Magazine. “See Richard Nixon’s, ‘I am not a crook,’ and Bill Clinton’s, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,’ just for starters.”

Analysts are ridiculing Sanders’s declaration. From GOP messaging guru Frank Luntz, tweeting:

Every minute it takes for the Trump team to respond equals lost support and more doubt.

“The President is not a liar” is almost as bad as Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

Bad language. Bad strategy.

A Florida Republican strategist:

Rick Wilson tweeted: Donald Trump could kill and eat a small child on the White House lawn and he would not be impeached be this Congress

The director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics:

Larry Sabato tweeted: The chances that Comey is telling the truth and Trump has lied are close to 100%. Partisanship shouldn’t blind people to the obvious.

— The problem for the president is that he shortsightedly chose to squander his credibility on both mountains and molehills, from falsely accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower to inflating the size of his inauguration crowd. And now it’s lost.

— The Post’s nonpartisan Fact Checkers have documented 623 false and misleading claims made by Trump during his first 137 days in office.

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