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"The truth is that Republicans failed." A conservative columnist on the GOP's capitulation to Trump.

David French on Trump, Russian collusion, and the future of the Republican Party.

Protesters Outside The White House Demand An Investigation Into Donald Trump Jr.'s Meeting With Russian Lawyer Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“The Russian investigation isn’t a witch hunt anymore, if it ever was. It’s a national necessity.”

Those aren’t the words of a liberal reacting to this week’s bombshell release of emails showing that Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting with a Russian lawyer after being explicitly told it would include damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was being provided by the Russian government.

Instead, those are the words of conservative David French, an Army veteran and conservative columnist for National Review who almost decided to mount a protest campaign against then-candidate Donald Trump last year. He had no chance to win, but he might have given conservatives a name they could write it on their ballots as a protest vote.

On Tuesday, just a few hours after the release of the new emails, French unloaded on the Trump administration, posting a scathing article headlined “There is Now Evidence that Senior Trump Officials Attempted to Collude With Russia.”

“No American — Democrat or Republican — should defend the expressed intent of this meeting,” he wrote.

Although he never says it in the piece, French’s words are aimed squarely at conservative voters — and Republican politicians — who so far have turned a blind eye to the Trump administration’s lies and scandals.

I reached out to French on Wednesday to talk about why that is, and why he doubts Republicans in Congress will ever impeach or seek to constrain the Trump administration. I also ask him if the Republican Party will pay a long-term price for their complicity in Trump’s various scandals.

Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows.

Sean Illing

It’s been almost a year since we last spoke, and things have only gotten weirder. It’s hard to believe that I’m talking to a conservative Republican writer who just wrote a piece about how a Republican president colluded with a hostile foreign power in order to facilitate that country’s efforts to undermine an American election.

David French

I still can't believe that there's an actual email that exists that basically says, "Hey, the Russian government wants to help your dad," and Trump Jr. responds, "Love it." It feels like a bad House of Cards script.

Sean Illing

Say what you will of the Underwoods, they at least have a plan. The Trump administration is just a tornado of incompetence.

David French

Yeah, I guess that’s true. The other thing that’s so dispiriting is watching the legions of Republicans bury their heads in the sand and pretend like this isn’t happening.

Sean Illing

Have you seen some of the reactions of GOP senators? Sen. Orrin Hatch said, "I don't think this is relevant to the Trump administration.” Sen. Thom Tillis said, “That’s the very thing that we need to not be distracted by.” So I guess potentially treasonous collusion with Russia is just a sideshow now.

David French

I'm sure that if there were similar revelations about Hillary Clinton, they would be equally blasé! Look, I think this is a product of the fact that as of right now there is no sign that the core of the Republican base support for Trump is cracking. There was something that was really interesting that happened in Tennessee. Republican Sen. Bob Corker said that the Trump administration seems to be descending into chaos, and a poll was done of Tennessee GOP primary voters that showed a whopping 60 percent of them said that that comment made them less likely to want to vote for Bob Corker in the primary.

So long as that base wall holds, this is what we’re going to get.

GOP Senators Hold Meeting To Discuss Draft Of Healthcare Bill
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is surrounded by reporters as he leaves a meeting of GOP senators in the U.S. Capitol June 22, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Is there a meaningful distinction between Trump's base and the Republican base?

David French

For now, I don’t think so. My sense is that the shock and delight of the election victory bonded the base to Trump more than anything else that's happened since. The level of despair among your average GOP voter heading into the election, that feeling that we’re about to lose again, was real. There was a feeling of incredible gloom that this thing had been botched and then, almost miraculously, it was reversed in a few hours on election night. So people are still bonded to Trump. There's this burst of hope. And for people who don’t follow politics at the speed of Twitter, that exuberance doesn’t wear off easily.

Sean Illing

There’s some truth in that, but this is about a lot more than election night exuberance. Half the country doesn’t give a damn what the president does because it’s not about the president; they just hate the other team. This is negative partisanship run amok and it’s totally divorced from principles or ideology.

David French

You hit the nail on the head. My theory is that this is a manifestation of negative partisanship. If you look at that Pew data that really defines that term well, basically it says, "Hey, I'm a Republican not because of what Republicans believe but because I dislike Democrats," and vice versa. Democrats aren't Democrats because of what Democrats believe, but because they dislike Republicans. When you play that out and look at 2016, is it any surprise that this was the most vitriolic election in my lifetime?

Sean Illing

Negative partisanship exists on both sides, but I’m not sure there’s a perfect equivalence. We’ve never seen anything like this before, though, so it’s impossible to know how Democratic voters would respond. But can you imagine if Chelsea Clinton and John Podesta were caught colluding with the Russians in this flagrant a manner? Would the Democratic establishment fall in like this? I doubt it, but who knows? We can be damn sure how Republicans would react, however.

David French

Oh, I can imagine. I think Sean Hannity's show would go to three hours a night. You would have breaking news sirens on all four sides of the Fox News screen. The response will be insane, and the talking points would be obvious. They would say it’s about principle and that this is not how you engage with enemies of the United States. We all know what would happen. And right now, except for a few principled Republicans, it’s just total denialism.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing
Fox News television personality and political commentator Sean Hannity and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stand near the podium after recording an interview in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, January 24, 2017.
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Sean Illing

You mention the few Republicans who have taken a stand — people like John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse — but I want to talk about the rest of the Republicans in Congress, because I think that’s where the real responsibility lies here. I'll just toss this out there: What the hell happened to your party? How did the Republican establishment become enablers of ... this?

David French

Well, it didn’t all happen at once; it was a process. It started to become clear in late 2015 that Trump had staying power, and I think there was still disbelief among the establishment. People were just waiting for this thing to implode, so they kept kicking the can down the road.

I remember writing in December 2015 that Rubio or Cruz or someone had to step up and lead rather than appease and triangulate. These guys were just assuming Trump would fade and they didn’t want to be the one who killed him. Plus, they wanted to absorb his voters. You literally had months of this. You had months of Trump attacking whoever he wanted to attack. The response was tepid, because I think the assumption was, "He's going to expend his energy. He's going to finally cross that line. He's going to go down. I don't want to be the one who does it because I want to get all his people."

By the time Republicans realized Trump wasn’t going away, it was too late. Rubio and Cruz tried, at various points, to take Trump down but nothing stuck. Eventually, it just became about defeating Hillary Clinton. No one wanted to be seen as helping to elect Clinton, and I think a lot of Republicans believed that Trump would lose anyway. So they were just looking towards 2020.

The truth is that Republicans failed. At every stage it was, "Somebody's going to do this for us," and at no stage was it, "We're going to circle the wagons around principles, stand up for what we've been telling Republicans we believe in for the last quarter century-plus, and defend these Republican principles because they're right and because they're true."

Sean Illing

That’s all true, but what I’m really talking about is what happened after Trump was elected — that’s where the real cowardice begins. Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell made a kind of devil's bargain, where they just said, "We’re going to overlook this obscenity and this man’s unfitness for office because we think we can use him as a vehicle to pass legislation we’ve wanted to pass for years.” That’s unspeakably cynical and, ultimately, I think they’ll regret it, if they don’t already.

David French

Here's the thing: I think that there has been and there still is the possibility to win individual legislative victories, and I think individual legislative victories should be pursued. But I don’t think they should be pursued at the expense of the other part of the legislative branch's job, which is holding the executive branch accountable.

This is something that I think is particularly pernicious here, because as we all know, Trump, like every politician, places a premium on loyalty, but with Trump I think that goes to 11, to borrow the phrase from Spinal Tap. Trump doesn’t understand compromise and he doesn’t hire or work with people who aren’t loyal to him. And if he detects wavering or disloyalty, he goes on the warpath.

Sean Illing

I hear you, but that’s an incredibly weak defense of the moral cowardice on display. At some point, this is about more than legislative victories. Trump could be stopped if the Republicans in Congress decided, in concert, to stop him.

David French

I agree. What GOP legislators are confronting is a situation in which they want to get X done and realize that in order to get X done they need the cooperation of the administration, and if her perceives disloyalty, he’ll undermine everything they try to do. This isn’t a defense of what they’re doing so much as an observation of the strategic logic.

But there’s no doubt this has created a very unhealthy dynamic in which people are afraid to do both parts of their legislative job — pursue purposeful legislation and maintain oversight and accountability of the executive branch in a rigorous way — because they feel like doing one will mean they can't do the other.

President Trump Returns To White House
President Donald Trump waves as he returns to the White House on July 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images

Sean Illing

In the short term, the Republican Congress has gotten one or two wins, like the Gorsuch appointment, and maybe they’ll score some more legislative victories, though that seems unlikely at this point. But what price will they pay in the long-run for this capitulation?

David French

All other things being equal, I think you pay a high price for corruption. The example I point Republicans to is Hillary Clinton. I say, "Look, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump." There's an awful lot of people say, "Well, the Clintons always got away with their own personal corruptions. The Clintons always got away with their scandals. They always beat their opponents."

But, actually, no. Actually, it's very plausible to argue that one of the reasons why Al Gore lost a very, very winnable election in 2000 was Clinton scandal fatigue, even though Gore wasn't a part of the Clinton scandals. Clinton scandal fatigue impacted her '08 run as well, and it certainly impacted the 2016 run.

The problem is, you can win short-term political victories, but you also create a larger fatigue, a larger disillusionment, a larger cynicism, because the fact of the matter is the majority of Americans are not base Republican voters. That has political blow-back over time. Even if you're not persuaded by the moral argument of, "This is just not how we should behave," even if you're just focused on ends justify the means, well, there's still blow-back.

Sean Illing

I think it makes sense to assume that Republicans won’t easily shake the stench of Trump, but negative partisanship being what it is, are we really sure of that? If people are cocooned in their information bubbles, as they seem to be, almost any bullshit narrative can take hold.

David French

I agree with you. We have to realize it's not just our bubbles. We also have a high degree of voter ignorance. Yeah, the activist bases of both parties are more hyper-engaged and hyper-aware than they've ever been, but, perversely, that insulates them against the less active engagement of their fellow citizens. They're running around and assuming that everyone follows everything, but I can tell you, even with folks who are active in their communities in the middle of Trump country, civically minded citizens who read the news, you can bring up five Trump scandals and they may have heard of one.

Those of us who are on Twitter, those of us who are engaging in the Facebook wars or writing think pieces and all of that, just because of the world we live in we often seriously overestimate everyone else's engagement. That's another reason why I think Trump's support is holding steady, is the level of awareness of the various controversies that have beset his administration is really pretty low, outside of, again, the core base that's fighting the daily Twitter battle.

Sean Illing

Do you think that’s true as it relates to the Russian collusion scandal? This is a huge story that everyone is more or less aware of. You even wrote in the National Review that this isn’t a witch hunt but a “national necessity.” The investigation is ongoing and, eventually, it will conclude. Given what we already know, it’s hard to believe that it won’t be damning. Will Republicans get away with ignoring it forever?

David French

Can I be cynical?

Sean Illing

Of course.

David French

I think it'll depend a lot on the perceived political health of the president at the time. I have often had this interesting counterfactual in my mind: Would there have been more bipartisan revulsion at Bill Clinton’s misconduct if growth in the United States was, say, at 1 percent at that time rather than 3 percent? I think there probably would've been. There would've been less good will towards him from Democrats. There would've been less of a sense in the Democratic Party that he was a successful president.

I think that that's going to be the $64,000 question moving forward: When these investigations wind down and when these reports are issued, what is going to be the rest of the state of play in this country and what is going to be the health of the Republican regard for Trump? If it's very, very strong, if the economy's growing, if unemployment continues to fall, if there is a perception that the #Resistance is unhinged, then you're going to see a circle of wagons. I think you'd see a circle of wagons even if there were a string of indictments, if you will forgive me for being extremely cynical.

But if Trump is appearing otherwise politically weak and House majorities are in danger because of loyalty to Trump, you will see people, "elder statesmen" in the party, rediscovering their virtue. A lot depends on the prevailing circumstances.

Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, shake hands at a press conference with members of the GOP, on the passage of legislation to roll back the Affordable Care Act, in the Rose Garden of the White House, On Thursday, May 4, 2017.
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Sean Illing

I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but I want to be clear about what it means: You’re basically saying that the Republican Party is so bereft of principles at this point that it doesn't matter if the Trump campaign colluded with a hostile foreign power, or if members of the Trump campaign and family lined their own pockets at the expense of American prestige and interests, that none of these things will be part of the political calculus for Republican leaders. That’s a pretty staggering indictment, wouldn’t you say?

David French

I will say that there will be some brave voices, and they will likely be some of the same voices that we've heard from — you mentioned a few of them earlier. They will say what they believe and they will act on their beliefs. I don't want to indict all Republicans. Goodness knows my colleagues at National Review and colleagues in the conservative movement world, many of us will react to this kind of news appropriately and rightly, but I just have to tell you, after watching months and months and months of Trump saying and doing things that, if they had been said by a Democrat, if they had been done by a Democrat, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that not just would there be nonstop outrage, but there would be real serious talk of impeachment. Against that backdrop, the predominant move is either to ignore or to defend. I have to have evidence that I'm wrong before I'm going to start to believe that I'm wrong.

Sean Illing

I know we’re just about out of time, so let me ask you this final question: You came close to running for president as a third-party candidate. Is that, ultimately, what’s needed — a third party for actual conservatives?

David French

You know, I think leadership really, really matters. I think what's needed now is compelling, bold leadership to help repair a rotting political infrastructure. That's one thing that, frankly, the Republicans lacked in 2016 as a response to Donald Trump, just flat out lacked it.

But I see hope for the future here, I really do. I speak to young conservative evangelicals all the time (because that’s the part of the conservative movement I come from) and there is absolutely a generational divide on this. These young conservatives tell me all the time that this is not the conservative movement they signed up for.

The ironic thing about it all is the younger conservatives grew up in the world that the older conservatives created, in the sense that the older conservatives created institutions like Young America's Foundation and others that are out there educating young people that conservatism is about a set of principles and ideals, about preserving cultural traditions and values. There’s been a huge amount of whiplash amongst that generation over the past 18 months or so, and that whiplash hasn't stopped.

So I do think there is hope for the future of the conservative movement, because there are an awful lot of people who said, "Wait, this is not the conservative movement I was brought up to be a part of." But right now it lacks leadership. There isn't a coherent movement. There isn't a leader to coalesce behind. There isn't a movement that really exists.

It's just an awful lot of people with an awful lot of discomfort.