ANALYSIS | President Donald Trump’s week was dominated by one plea deal, one conviction and two immunity protections for some of his closest former confidantes and aides. The fallout raised questions about the Republican Party, making it fitting he ended the week at the epicenter of the GOP’s simmering civil war.
Many senior prominent Ohio Republicans were present in Columbus on Friday evening as the president addressed a party dinner and headlined a fundraiser earlier. Sen. Rob Portman greeted Trump at the airport, for instance. But the leader of the Buckeye State GOP did not. Nor did Gov. John Kasich make it in time for the fundraiser. And he skipped Trump’s dinner remarks.
“I disagree with the president’s policies,” Kasich said Tuesday, adding that he was taking one of his children to college Friday but making his differences with Trump crystal clear: “You’ve never seen me getting into a vicious attack on his personality. I don’t like his leadership style. That’s pretty darn clear and I speak out because I think it’s really important we become a nation of uniters.”
It was only 11 days ago that Trump blasted Kasich for, in the president’s eyes, hindering Troy Balderson’s bid to capture the state’s once-reliably red 12th District House seat. “The very unpopular Governor of Ohio (and failed presidential candidate) @JohnKasich hurt Troy Balderson’s recent win by tamping down enthusiasm for an otherwise great candidate,” Trump wrote, adding: “Even Kasich’s Lt. Governor lost Gov. race because of his unpopularity.”
The very unpopular Governor of Ohio (and failed presidential candidate) @JohnKasich hurt Troy Balderson’s recent win by tamping down enthusiasm for an otherwise great candidate. Even Kasich’s Lt. Governor lost Gov. race because of his unpopularity. Credit to Troy on the BIG WIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 13, 2018
(Balderson was formally declared the winner Friday, though his narrow margin raised questions anew about Trump’s political appeal applying to congressional races.)
During the dinner, Trump touted his record and predicted it would help the party “do really well” in Senate races. He said Republicans will “surprise people” by winning more Senate races than experts are predicting.
Before Balderson’s narrow win became official, Trump spent the week taking fire from not only Kasich, but other Republicans after what could go down as one of the most important weeks of Trump’s presidency.
His former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to counts that included campaign finance violations stemming from payments to two women in the summer of 2016 that Cohen contends were made at the direction of Trump to influence the presidential race. His onetime campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted of a slew of charges and could face up to 80 years in prison.
Republican lawmakers urged him to not even consider pardons for either.
Those developments led Democrats to start talking about impeachment. When Trump again lashed out at Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday, some GOP members, such as Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, sounded apoplectic and resigned to the president firing his hand-picked AG — a move they warned could bring backlash from Senate Republicans.
“Bizarrely, there are people in this body now talking like the attorney general will be fired, should be fired. I’m not sure how to interpret the comments of the last couple of hours,” Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said on the floor. “I would just like to say, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, and as a member of this body, I find it really difficult to envision any circumstance where I would vote to confirm a successor to Jeff Sessions if he is fired because he is executing his job, rather than choosing to act in a partisan hack.”
And with immunity being granted to Allen Weisselberg, a top Trump Organization executive, and David Pecker, American Media Inc. CEO, the president’s legal and political troubles suddenly have grown — and threaten to throw the Republican Party into chaos.
Ohio’s political scene offers telling foreshadowing of trends that could spread into other key states that the president won in 2016 — think Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida — if investigations being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and federal investigators in New York State squeeze Trump further.
Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, acknowledged Friday morning that the Trump and Kasich wings of the party are very much in conflict. Notably, despite the president’s tough week and the growing list of former aides who have pleaded guilty or been convicted, Walker sided with Trump when asked whether he or Kasich was winning.
“If you looked at the numbers, you would definitely have to say President Trump,” he told CNN. “The people who elected Trump are not deterred. In fact … even with all the Cohen and Manafort — as disgusting as we’ve seen some of the decisions that these gentlemen have made, it looks like that that core base of Trump supporters is still intact.”
Like Trump does so often, Walker focused on the president’s base, which has remained consistent at around 40 percent of the overall electorate. And among Republicans, he often polls well into the 80s.
That means even with the Cohen-Manafort-immunity-Mueller-Russia drama, the Kasich wing has a long way to go to even seriously challenge Trump for control of the party. Consider that Walker’s take comes even as Trump’s contention about Kasich appears iffy: A recent Quinnipiac University poll put Kasich’s job approval of 52 percent in Ohio well above Trump’s 43 percent.
But, as Walker noted, that poll showed why, despite his reality television show-like presidency, Trump is winning the party’s internal struggle: He remains more popular among Republicans than Kasich.
Some Republicans, like Ohio state GOP Chairwoman Jane Timken, for now, are trying to remain neutral. Last week, after Trump’s Twitter strike on Kasich, she used her own humorous tweet to try to remain out of range of the Republican-on-Republican shelling.
“Did you hear the one,” she wrote, “about the reporter who asked the Ohio Republican Party Chair to criticize two fellow Republicans who don’t always agree with each other?”
Did you hear the one about the reporter who asked the Ohio Republican Party Chair to criticize two fellow Republicans who don’t always agree with each other? pic.twitter.com/lXiClD5uuc
— Jane Murphy Timken (@JaneyMurph) August 13, 2018
That line is good for a time-buying chuckle. But should Democrats take control of the House and the walls continue to creep closer to the president, sides likely will have to be chosen.
The president knows one thing still mostly unites members of his party: attacking Democrats. “Their whole campaign is resist,” he said of the opposition during the Ohio event. “They haven’t figured out that they lost the election. They’re going to figure it out. … You have left-wing haters and radicals.”
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