This week, the formerly politically astute former House Speaker Newt Gingrich lost his bearings a bit — declaring “we are now at the end of the failed investigation” of the special counsel, and telling a prominent Washington journalist on the record that Republicans must politicize the alleged murder of an Iowa student by an illegal immigrant or they will lose the midterm elections badly. But Gingrich knows what’s coming for the GOP, he has seen it before.
If you gave Gingrich truth serum he would concede that 2018 represents as bad a threat to House Republicans as 2006 did, when — at the time — Gingrich recommended that all Democrats needed to ask voters was “Had enough?”
The special counsel’s investigation into the 2016 election, headed by Robert Mueller, certainly isn’t ending anytime soon. Yet on an afternoon when two close associates of President Trump officially became convicted felons, Newt must have found it hard to think straight. On Tuesday, as a jury found former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort guilty on eight counts of financial crimes that could put him away for years, Trump’s former personal attorney was pleading guilty to his own eight counts of financial crimes — and telling a judge he did some of them at the direction of Donald Trump. On that same day, a second GOP congressman who endorsed Trump early for president was indicted. California Rep. Duncan Hunter follows Rep. Chris Collins, one charged for misuse of campaign funds, the other for insider trading.
In 2006, when voters grew increasingly weary of the war in Iraq, congressional Republicans covered their ears as multiple scandals exploded within their ranks. For example, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham had taken bribes the year before to splurge on a 19th century Louis-Philippe commode; in 2018 it’s Hunter, who is also from the San Diego area, charged with spending campaign dollars on tequila shots and Hawaiian shorts. Both are decorated military veterans whom voters considered the best of public servants.
Unlike 2006, this year Congress isn’t the source of the worst scandals; those are mostly spewing from the executive branch. But Republicans in Congress, a separate and co-equal branch, have abdicated their responsibility to oversee the Trump administration. They were apparently betting that voters wouldn’t notice, a calculation that may end up costing them their majority.
Polling in 2006 showed that voters, who considered both parties in Congress to be corrupt, trusted Democrats more to counter corruption. Recent polling shows independent voters especially do not believe Republicans in Congress are conducting necessary oversight of the Trump administration.
It turns out voters have been paying attention to the Trump administration’s many ethical lapses. There isn’t room here for an inventory but if you have forgotten, Google the various transgressions of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and, worst of all — former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
The Republican National Committee is paying Trump’s former personal bodyguard Keith Schiller $15,000 per month for … what? The Trump 2020 campaign tried offering Omarosa Manigault Newman $15,000 per month for her silence. Republican political entities have spent $3 million at Trump properties, foreign government officials stay at the Trump International Hotel, helping amass $40 million in revenue in 2017 while membership fees have doubled at Mar-a-Lago, the “Winter White House” where Trump mingles with the guests who are delighted to pay any price for such access.
Republicans have sat mute as Trump has demanded the Justice Department prosecute his political enemies, sought influence over the Federal Reserve and the judiciary, threatened private companies like Harley-Davidson and revoked the security clearances of his critics. Although Republicans have given lip service to passing legislation to protect Mueller’s investigation, GOP leaders have refused to allow a vote.
Terrible Tuesday, to the surprise of no one, didn’t quiet Trump. Unbowed, he made it clear he feels Paul Manafort has earned special stature as a loyalist, which makes the prosecution illegitimate, and he is considering a pardon for him. Not only was it “sad” what “they” did to Manafort, Trump said, but he expressed “respect” for his former campaign chairman because he “refused to ‘break’… to get a ‘deal.’” Trump even told “Fox & Friends” that the whole use of cooperating witnesses, “flipping,” he said, should be outlawed. He continued his attacks on his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not sparing him from the Russia probe by recusing himself from it, during the same “Fox & Friends” interview.
All of it, of course, quieted Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham did tell reporters that pardons are traditionally for people who have reformed themselves and since Manafort hadn’t even been sentenced it may look “self-serving” for Trump to pardon him. But Graham, along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, also indicated that while it wasn’t wise to replace Sessions before the midterm elections, it was likely to happen sooner rather than later — which amounted to Graham blessing a likely attempt by Trump to quash the Mueller probe with a new attorney general. With two months to go before Election Day, Democrats aren’t likely to let that one slip by the voters.
In 2006 Gingrich told Time magazine that voters “hire you to govern, not just to tell them you are right.” Democrats, he said, needed nothing beyond an appeal to end the corruption. “What they are going to try to do, what they should do, is say nothing except ‘Had enough?’”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi remembers that campaign well, because it made her speaker. On Wednesday she circulated a letter to her colleagues describing GOP control of government as “a cesspool of self-enrichment, secret money and ethical blindness” and blamed Republicans for turning a “blind eye to the corruption and criminality at the heart of President Trump’s inner circle.”
That same day Gingrich had emailed Mike Allen at Axios to make sure he played up the story of immigrant homicide. “If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble. If we can be blocked by Manafort-Cohen, etc.., then GOP could lose [the House] badly,” Gingrich wrote.
Desperation traveled quickly in the GOP this week as the normally bad Trump news grew ominous. Another top GOP insider told Axios: “The Republican party looks like a criminal enterprise.” On Thursday the New York Times reported top GOP leaders are urging vulnerable Republican incumbents to speak out and find some distance from Trump’s legal woes.
This, as they say, is the eleventh hour. Voters will decide soon if Republicans came to their newfound concern a bit too late.