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Essential Politics: As Trump splits the GOP, leaders hesitate to choose sides

Trump supporters, some carrying Confederate symbols, confront U.S. Capitol Police officers during the Capitol invasion.
Supporters of President Trump, some carrying Confederate symbols, confront U.S. Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber during the invasion of the Capitol last week.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press )

Typically, when party leaders speak during a major congressional debate, they sum up the position of their side. When House Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy took his turn during Wednesday’s impeachment debate, he did almost the opposite.

For hours, starting Tuesday evening as the House began discussing removing President Trump from office, a parade of lawmakers from the party’s far right represented the Republican side.

Led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the featured speakers included favorites of the right like Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas, along with newly elected Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a QAnon devotee, and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, whose first move in Washington was to boast of carrying a concealed weapon in violation of D.C. law.

Each excused, denied or brushed aside the words and actions from Trump that had helped incite the mob that attacked the Capitol a week earlier. Democrats were the party truly responsible for violence, they said.

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Then McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) got up. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters,” he said. A formal censure would be “prudent.”

He rejected the contention made by some conservatives that the “riots were caused by Antifa,” the left-wing movement. “Conservatives should be the first to say” that’s untrue, he said. And he spoke a simple, declarative sentence — President-elect Joe Biden “won the election” — which many in his party still deny.

An observer might well have wondered whether he and the parade of speakers before him hailed from the same party.

As the party’s leader, McCarthy could have ensured that his views, which a large number of his fellow Republican lawmakers share, dominated his party’s side of the debate. He chose, instead, to put the party’s conspiracy wing on display. His decision starkly illustrates the problem Republican leaders face.

A party divided in retreat

As Biden prepares to take the oath of office next week, he leads a party that has remained notably united, despite its widely publicized ideological divisions. On the Republican side, the opposite holds true — the party that Trump dominated for the past four years now suffers from a deep split that centers on him.

Roughly half (52%) of Republicans and independents who lean to the GOP say Trump bears at least some responsibility for the violence and destruction at the Capitol — nearly one in five say he bears “a lot” of the blame, according to a new survey that the nonpartisan Pew Research Center conducted Friday through Tuesday — after the riot, but before the House impeachment vote.

Almost as many, however, 46%, say he bears no responsibility. (Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, nearly all say Trump is responsible, at least in part.)

Among people who say they voted for Trump this time, almost half rate his conduct since the election as poor (20%) or only fair (28%); the other half call it good (34%) or excellent (17%). Trump voters with college degrees are far more likely now to rate Trump’s conduct negatively than they were just after the election.

In the electorate at large, views of Trump have sunk to the lowest level of his presidency, Pew found, with about two-thirds disapproving of how he carries out his job; about 3 in 10 approve.

Several other recent polls have similar results. In the election, polls underestimated Trump’s backing by a few points, but even if one were to tweak the numbers to reflect that, the decline of his backing would still be sharp.

The decline spotlights the division within the GOP: Democrats already overwhelmingly disapproved of Trump; the recent drop comes from Republicans, especially those who label themselves moderates, Pew found.

By contrast, more than 60% of Americans rate Biden’s actions since the election as “good” or “excellent,” and majorities approve of his Cabinet choices so far.

The clearest evidence of GOP division came when Pew asked about the future: Almost 6 in 10 Republicans say they would like to see Trump remain a major national political figure. About 4 in 10 say they don’t want that.

Republicans who call themselves moderates or liberals generally don’t want Trump to remain a major figure; the larger group of Republicans who call themselves conservatives do.

The public at large opposes Trump remaining as a major national figure by more than 2 to 1.

Pro-Trump views strongly coincide with the belief that he actually won the election. Four-in-10 Trump voters say he “definitely” won; another 36% say he “probably” won. Only 7% of Trump voters were willing to make the flat statement that McCarthy made on the House floor — that Biden won. Another 15% say he probably did.

In all, 29% of Republicans take all four pro-Trump positions in Pew’s survey: They hold Trump blameless for the riot, rate his conduct since the election as good or excellent, want to see him remain a major figure and say he definitely or probably won.

But another 25% of Republicans take the anti-Trump position on all four. The remaining half sit somewhere in between.

The result: Trump’s sway in the party has waned, but it hasn’t disappeared.

For party leaders like McCarthy and, even more critically, Senate Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, that poses a massive problem.

The roughly 3-in-10 Republicans who support Trump across the board form much of the party’s activist core. They’re the voters who show up for local party caucuses and disproportionately vote in primaries, especially in the party’s conservative strongholds.

But the 25% who reject Trump are the voters the party leans on to win general elections, especially statewide contests for the Senate and races for the House in swing districts.

McCarthy, in effect, tried to straddle the party’s internal chasm. As McConnell and other Republicans contemplate a Senate trial of Trump, starting in the middle of next week, they’re left with the question of whether to do likewise, and hope that time — and the presence of a Democrat in the White House — will eventually reunify their party. The alternative is to make a clean break and vote to convict Trump.

Until that’s resolved, the party is stuck with what may be the worst position of all. The twin Republican losses in this month’s Georgia Senate runoffs indicated that Republicans are losing support from both sides of their divide: Turnout in the state’s most conservative areas was weaker than what Democrats mustered, while in suburban regions, where Republican moderates concentrate, the party’s vote share fell below par.

“It is an epic disaster for the Republican party,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who was an advisor to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, told my colleague Janet Hook.

“In many ways this is worse than Watergate,” he said, harkening back to the scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency. “At least during Watergate, you had Republicans in Congress clearly breaking with the president. Here, you have a lot of them remaining loyal to the bitter end.”

Biden begins setting out his plans

Biden outlined a $1.9-trillion plan for the pandemic and economic crises. As Hook and I wrote, it includes more than $400 billion to speed vaccinations and meet Biden’s target of 100 million people protected in his administration’s first 100 days.

But the plan also includes first installments on some long-sought Democratic goals, including an ambitious — and expensive — plan that would cut child poverty in half by expanding federal support for families with kids.

Whether the proposals can draw any Republican support will provide an early test of Biden’s professed hope for bipartisanship. If Republicans balk, the Democrats will likely turn quickly to the complicated budget process known as reconciliation, which could allow them to pass a bill through the Senate without facing a filibuster.

As Doyle McManus writes in his column, although McConnell won’t be majority leader, there’s still plenty he can do to obstruct Biden, and he has extensive experience in doing so if he so chooses.

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Tight security and a widening dragnet

Law enforcement agencies and the military are taking an unprecedented approach to security for the inauguration, David Cloud, Jie Jenny Zou, Del Wilber and Brian Contreras wrote.

In the meantime, the FBI and federal prosecutors are widening their investigation of the attack on the Capitol and rapidly expanding the number of people under arrest. Most of the initial charges have been misdemeanors, but the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who is heading the investigation, made clear on Monday that those are mostly placeholders. The investigation is looking at more serious felonies, including sedition and conspiracy, he said.

On Thursday, the FBI arrested a California man, Hunter A. Ehmke, 20, who they allege smashed a window at the Capitol as part of the attack. He was arrested at his family’s home in Glendora, charged with damaging or destroying government property, obstruction of an official proceeding and violent entry and disorderly conduct and later was released on $40,000 bond, Michael Finnegan reported.

The second impeachment from start to finish

As Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah Wire reported, the moment Trump’s second impeachment began came when Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles), who was sheltering in a colleague’s office, fired off a text to all his fellow Judiciary Committee Democrats saying they needed to act.

“Impeach, Impeach, Impeach” the responses came back.

Here’s Hook and Haberkorn’s account of the historic day.

Mark Barabak writes that Republicans had a chance to choose principle over party; most didn’t.

Haberkorn looks ahead at the schedule for a Senate impeachment trial that could begin on Inauguration Day.

The next several weeks promise to be consequential ones. We’ll be there with the latest at each step of the way.

Stay in touch

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Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.


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