Memo to GOP leaders in Congress: It’s time for an Oval Office intervention

The new coronavirus has changed everything

Congressional Republican leaders must try to convince the president to relinquish any role in managing the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, Shapiro writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congressional Republican leaders must try to convince the president to relinquish any role in managing the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, Shapiro writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 10, 2020 at 5:30am

“It’s only a tweet.”

“He’s not going to change, so why should I get involved?”

“He’s delivering on the things that really count like taxes and judges.”

“I don’t want to face a primary in two years.”

“Why play into the hands of the Democrats and the media?”

“We’ve never had an economy this good.”

These timorous justifications have carried congressional Republicans through Donald Trump’s odd dealings with Vladimir Putin; the Mueller investigation; the president’s bromance with Kim Jong Un; the return of Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the sellout of the Kurds in Syria; impeachment; and a White House management style that makes Henry VIII look like a stable genius in comparison.

And, with unemployment at 3.5 percent, Republicans had reason to hope that Trump would prevail in November with a trademark guttersnipe campaign against the Democratic nominee. It also seemed reasonable to assume that GOP money and the Trump campaign’s emphasis on boosting turnout among white voters without college degrees would be enough to save Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority. 

So until about two weeks ago, there was ample political (but not moral) justification for congressional Republicans to keep their discomfort with the worst aspects of the Trump presidency in a private lockbox. 

But then the new coronavirus changed everything. 

Suddenly, the issue transcended conventional politics and spoke to the very justification for the creation of the federal government as defined by the preamble to the Constitution: “… insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense [and] promote the general Welfare.”

Time for courage

Nothing is more important than Washington’s responsibility to protect as many Americans as possible during what may turn into the gravest public health emergency since the influenza epidemic of a century ago. 

That is why now is the time for Republican leaders of Congress to do what they have resisted for more than three years — stage an intervention in the Oval Office. 

The scene will not be pretty. And it may well be futile. But congressional GOP leaders have to try to convince Trump to relinquish any role in managing the government’s response to the pandemic. No tweets, no public comments whatsoever and no visits to government facilities like the Centers for Disease Control wearing a red “Keep America Great” campaign cap. 

Sadly, Trump may actually believe his Friday boast at the CDC: “People are really surprised I understand this stuff. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”

In his detached-from-reality arrogance, Trump has already spewed more misinformation about the coronavirus than a team of Russian hackers out to infect Facebook. It was just a month ago that Trump supposedly reassured the nation by saying, “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”

A congressional intervention would require more than muzzling Trump in public. 

The president has to be convinced to hand over all control of the federal government’s response to medical experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and leading public health officials. It would not be enough for Trump to cede responsibility to Mike Pence or Cabinet officials like Alex Azar. 

Pence and Azar are men in Trump’s orbit who have to conform to his misconceptions about the disease and the pace of infection. It is impossible to provide an honest briefing to the public if you are simultaneously worrying about the enraged reaction from Trump once you step away from the microphone. 

Given Trump’s temperament and temper, such a congressional intervention seems likely to be as successful as the Charge of the Light Brigade. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem about the doomed cavalry charge during the Crimean War, British forces faced “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them.”

Will it work?

But maybe Trump’s sense of self-preservation will kick in if GOP congressional leaders are as blunt as the situation warrants. The message should be unequivocal: Neither Trump’s presidency nor the Republican Senate can survive any further missteps in the handling of the worst national crisis since the 2008 stock market crash. 

Certainly Trump — who measures success in terms of money, not human beings — should be sobered by Monday’s nearly 8 percent drop in stock prices. Maybe the germ-phobic president may have been finally shaken out of his dream world by all the prominent Republicans who came in contact with someone with the virus at the recent CPAC convention. 

If the president resists, then McConnell, Kevin McCarthy and the other GOP leaders should go public with the story of their failed intervention with him. (Ted Cruz, in self-quarantine, might join their Capitol Hill press conference via a video hookup.)

Telling the truth about Trump is not in the DNA of Capitol Hill Republicans (Mitt Romney aside). But we are at a moment when GOP leaders will have to choose between the interests of the nation and the interests of Trump’s carefully cosseted ego. 

During the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, a quarter of all Americans were infected and an estimated 675,000 died. A repetition of that tragedy is the specter that hangs over America this week. And for congressional Republicans to do nothing in the face of Trump’s manifest incompetence makes them complicit in whatever comes next. 

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Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.