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Cowardice and Desperation: How Republicans Responded to Trump’s Constitution Comment

So many shades of yellow.
December 7, 2022
Cowardice and Desperation: How Republicans Responded to Trump’s Constitution Comment
(Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Saturday morning, Donald Trump claimed, falsely, that the 2020 election was fraudulent because Democrats had been “working closely with Big Tech Companies” to defeat him. He concluded: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.”

It’s hard to imagine a clearer declaration of war against American democracy and the rule of law. But the same Republican lawmakers who excused Trump’s behavior for years—including his dinner with overt antisemites two weeks ago—are now excusing his explicit assault on the Constitution. Here’s how they’re responding.

1. Try to ignore it. Over the weekend, the Washington Post and New York Times reached out to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, asking their press contacts whether either man would comment on Trump’s statement. Neither office responded. On Sunday morning, in a Fox News interview, McCarthy wasn’t asked about Trump’s comment, and he chose not to bring it up. By Monday afternoon, according to Politico, McConnell had still “declined to respond to questions” about Trump’s statement. Both men refused to comment on Trump’s statement until Tuesday, three days after it came out.

2. Brush it off. On Sunday, when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked about Trump’s statement, Rep. Dave Joyce dismissed it as the former president’s “tweet du jour,” a distraction from important matters. “He says a lot of things,” Joyce shrugged. “I can’t be really chasing every one of these crazy statements that come out . . . from any of these candidates.” On Monday, when reporters asked Sen. Roger Marshall about Trump’s statement, he replied, “I’m not going to waste my time trying to dissect when he said this and how he said that. We should be focused on problems that matter to us at home.”

3. Don’t mention Trump. On Tuesday, as McCarthy was walking to the House floor, CNN reporter Daniella Diaz asked him about Trump’s statement. McCarthy said, “I fully support the Constitution,” but he chose to say nothing about Trump. Likewise, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, endorsed the Constitution but—when asked by PBS reporter Lisa Desjardins whether it was dangerous to talk about terminating the document—walked into his office rather than respond.

4. Pretend Trump didn’t say what he said. On Monday, Sen. Rick Scott, the outgoing head of the GOP’s Senate campaign committee, deflected questions about the statement by pleading that Trump claimed not have called for terminating the Constitution. Reporters reminded Scott that the statement, in writing, said exactly that. At that point, rather than answer a reporter’s question as to whether Trump was wrong, Scott retreated to subjectivism. “I can tell you where I am,” he said. “I believe we ought to enforce the laws.”

5. Humbly disagree. Like Scott, other Republican senators politely dissociated themselves from Trump’s statement. “I disagree with that,” said John Thune, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican. When Sen. Steve Daines was asked whether Trump’s statement was wrong, he responded: “I took an oath to uphold the Constitution.”

6. Say Trump is entitled to his opinion. Sen. Rand Paul refused to quarrel when he was asked whether Trump should apologize or clarify his statement. “You can talk to him about his opinion,” said Paul. “But my opinion is there are no exceptions to the Constitution.” When Scalise was asked whether Trump should stop denying that he lost the 2020 election, he shrugged that “how he runs his campaign” was up to Trump.

7. Say he doesn’t mean it. On Sunday, Stephanopoulos asked Joyce: “You’d support a candidate who’s come out for suspending the Constitution?” That’s when Joyce scoffed that Trump “says a lot of things.” On Monday, Sen. Ben Sasse defended the Constitution but dismissed Trump’s statement, saying, “I don’t think he believes anything. I think he just wants attention.”

(Editorial note: Last year, Trump literally attempted a violent coup.)

8. Say it doesn’t matter because Trump won’t run again. On Monday, reporters asked Sen. John Cornyn whether Trump’s statement disqualified him as a presidential candidate. Cornyn said the statement was “irresponsible,” but he ducked the question of disqualification, saying “it’s not clear who’s going to run.” When reporters pointed out that Trump had already announced he was running, Cornyn turned to his next dodge: “I guess he is until he isn’t.”

9. Refuse to say whether you’d support Trump, because he might not win the nomination. Stephanopoulos asked Joyce: “Can you support a candidate in 2024 who’s for suspending the Constitution?” Joyce, squirming, replied that “there’s going to be a lot of people in the primary” and that Trump probably wouldn’t win it. Likewise, Cornyn argued not that Trump’s statement was morally disqualifying but that as a political matter, it made his nomination “less likely.” When Thune was asked whether he’d support Trump if the former president won the nomination, he refused to “go there,” explaining, “That’s a long way off.”

10. Say that somebody else—not you—will make Trump’s statement an issue. When reporters asked whether Trump’s statement disqualified him as a candidate, Thune said it would provide “plenty of fodder for those that are looking to get into that race.” The senator explained that other candidates could use the statement to “create some contrast” with Trump—as though it were just another issue on which rivals might disagree.

11. Say it’s up to the voters. A CNN reporter asked Scott whether Trump’s statement was disqualifying. “The voters get to decide those things,” Scott replied. Sen. Lindsey Graham agreed: “The voters will determine who’s going to be the nominee for the Republican Party, who will be the president.” Sen. Josh Hawley concurred: “I’ll leave that to the voters to decide.” Today’s so-called conservatives seem to think the Constitution is just another policy that can be discarded based on a single presidential election.

12. Say you’ll support Trump if he wins the nomination. Stephanopoulos reminded Joyce that Trump had called “for suspending the Constitution” and asked: “If he’s the nominee, will you support him?” Joyce answered: “I will support whoever the Republican nominee is.”

13. Advise Trump to tone it down so he can win. On Sunday, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Congressman-elect Mike Lawler, “What is your reaction to Donald Trump calling for the termination of the U.S. Constitution?” “I don’t support that,” Lawler replied. He explained that voters “are tired of discussing the grievances of prior elections,” and therefore, Trump “would be well advised to focus on the future if he is going to run for president again.”

Memo to Lawler: When a president attempts a violent coup and then calls for terminating the Constitution, it’s usually unwise to counsel him on how to return to power.

14. Say it would be hard for Trump to get “sworn in.” On Tuesday, CNN’s Manu Raju asked McConnell, “Can you say categorically that you would not support [Trump] if he were the Republican nominee?” McConnell replied: “What I’m saying is that it would be pretty hard to be sworn in to the presidency if you’re not willing to uphold the Constitution.”

McConnell’s answer was even weaker than what he said about Trump’s dinner with the antisemites. Last week, McConnell depicted the dinner as a political mistake, arguing that “anyone meeting with people advocating” bigotry would be “highly unlikely to ever be elected president.” This time, McConnell didn’t even say Trump’s statement about the Constitution made him unelectable. Instead, he said it would it be harder for Trump to get “sworn in”—an ironic reference to the presidential oath of office and its vow to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution.

What happens if Trump speaks those words, as required, and then—as telegraphed by his statement on Saturday—ignores them once he’s back in power? McConnell seems to have no answer.

15. Say the president can’t suspend the Constitution. “He has no ability to suspend the Constitution,” Joyce told Stephanopoulos. It’s “fantasy . . . that we’re going to suspend the Constitution.” Sen. Bill Cassidy offered the same assurance: “It’s a fantasy. . . . We’re the party of the Constitution, it’s not going to happen.” Sasse dismissed Trump as a “clown” and told reporters, “Obviously, nobody’s terminating the Constitution.”

It would be nice if the president couldn’t suspend the Constitution. Unfortunately, the only thing that prevents him from suspending the Constitution is the Constitution itself, backed by people in power. If those people—in this case, Republican lawmakers—lack the spine to stand up to Trump when he’s a private citizen calling for termination of the nation’s founding document, there’s little reason to think they would defend it once he’s back in power.

16. Say Trump has a point. On Monday, ABC reporter Jay O’Brien asked Graham whether, in O’Brien’s paraphrase, it was “disqualifying for a candidate to talk about terminating parts of the Constitution.” Graham replied, “What Trump said was wrong. But what happened at Twitter was wrong.” The senator complained that “there’s an unending desire to bend the rules to get Trump.” As to the 2024 election, he told reporters, “I know you don’t want him to be in the mix, but he’ll be in the mix.”

17. Say Biden is worse. Hawley, while dismissing Trump’s statement as a matter for “voters to decide,” claimed that “it’s disqualifying for Joe Biden and his press team to go out and say from the podium that here’s a list of people that they want banned from social media.” Hawley is misrepresenting what Biden’s press team said, which pertained to COVID misinformation on Facebook. And it’s remarkable that he thinks an explicit call for “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” is more defensible.

For seven years, well-meaning Republicans have predicted, or at least hoped, that Trump’s despicable conduct would turn the GOP against him. His coup attempt didn’t do it. His vow to pardon the criminals of January 6th didn’t do it. His dinner with antisemites didn’t do it. Now his explicit attack on the Constitution has failed to do it. At some point, we have to face the underlying threat to our republic. It’s not just Trump. It’s a party that will rationalize anything.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.