The man who will never go away

Donald Trump is back, possibly at his party’s peril

Former President Donald Trump’s vengeance tour against his GOP critics that began with a Saturday night stop in Ohio proves he will never willingly give up the limelight, Shapiro writes. (Tayfun Cokun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump’s vengeance tour against his GOP critics that began with a Saturday night stop in Ohio proves he will never willingly give up the limelight, Shapiro writes. (Tayfun Cokun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Posted June 29, 2021 at 6:00am

There is a time-honored spy story plot: A retired CIA agent, tired of the clandestine life, has retreated to an island in Mediterranean. One day up the dirt road to his hideaway comes his former CIA station chief luring him back for one last mission. 

Saturday night, Donald Trump lured everyone back to his alternative universe of crazed conspiracies about a “rigged” election. His 91-minute speech in Wellington, Ohio, was the start of his vengeance tour against Republicans like nearby Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted to impeach Trump for fomenting the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. 

Equally predictable, but far more devastating, is the beginning of the onslaught of books featuring dramatic scenes from inside the Trump Oval Office. We have, of course, had articles and books like this before, but this time around the sources are finally talking on-the-record instead of lurking in the shadows. 

The Atlantic published on Sunday a chilling excerpt from ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl’s forthcoming book, “Betrayal,” about the end times of the Trump presidency. Instead of Richard Nixon drunkenly talking to the portraits in the White House in “The Final Days,” we have the 45th president, his face bloated with rage, shouting at his attorney general, William Barr, “You must hate Trump. You must hate Trump.”

Barr’s candid interviews with Karl have been characterized as a Trump toady’s last-ditch efforts to salvage his reputation. But Barr’s motivations — which presumably are not based on his dedication to truth, justice and the American Way — do not undermine the narrative power of his tale. 

The attorney general’s purported disloyalty came when he displayed a belated flicker of moxie in telling The Associated Press in an interview that there was no compelling evidence or legal justification to overturn Joe Biden’s election. 

According to Karl, the catalyst for Barr’s truth-telling was a series of desperate pleas from Mitch McConnell, urging him to do something to save the two Republicans on the Jan. 5 ballot in the Georgia Senate runoffs. McConnell feared that Trump’s rants about a stolen election would muddle the GOP message in Georgia. 

Yes, we have another example to insert in the McConnell chapter in any future edition of “Profiles in Courage.”

McConnell, who confirmed the anecdotes in Karl’s excerpt, did not want his fingerprints on any effort to uphold the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Instead, his devilishly clever notion was for Barr to do the dirty work for him — and make the attorney general the focus of Trump’s rage. 

McConnell’s actual words to Barr should be included in every future profile of the supposed Machiavellian genius that is the Senate GOP leader: “Look, we need the president in Georgia, and so we cannot be frontally attacking him now. But you’re in a better position to inject some reality into this situation.”

Throughout Trump’s presidency, McConnell kept thinking that he could placate an erratic, ego-mad president with one more piece of his soul. With each payment, McConnell naively believed he could go back to his single-minded agenda of rubber-stamping conservative Republican judges.  

Blessed in 2018 with the most favorable Senate map in memory (26 Democratic-held seats were on the ballot and just 9 GOP seats), McConnell expected to win a lasting, unassailable majority. Instead, the GOP picked up a net of just two seats that year, a paltry gain that eventually made possible Chuck Schumer’s current status as Senate majority leader. 

The difference-maker: Donald J. Trump. 

Virtually everything the president did in 2018 and 2020 had the inadvertent result of fueling record Democratic turnout. By never standing up to Trump, Republicans like McConnell allowed him to continue as a human wrecking ball trying to destroy everyone — including Republicans — who stood in his way.

The Ohio rally illustrated a truth that should have been obvious from the beginning: Trump will never willingly give up the limelight.

Bristling with resentments, Trump, who never pledged allegiance to anyone other than his own reflection in the mirror, is happy to fight a two-front war against disloyal Republicans and the Democratic Party. 

No former president since Richard Nixon in 1974 has been a major factor in off-year congressional elections after he left office. 

But Trump in 2022 promises to be the exception — and nothing could make the Democrats happier. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, an old-fashioned Republican who is retiring next year, said Sunday on ABC News that Trump is “definitely the leader” of the GOP. 

This week, members of Congress — and, yes, mostly their staff members — will be putting the final touches on patriotic remarks to be delivered over the Fourth of July weekend. 

What better time for timorous Republicans to come forward and say, “I have looked closely at the evidence. And on this weekend of celebration of 245 years of American democracy, I want to tell you that Joe Biden was honestly elected and is the legitimate president of the United States.”

For most congressional Republicans (legislators like Marjorie Taylor Greene fall in a special category), this would merely be the public acknowledgement of what they have known since all the Trump lawsuits challenging the election were rejected by both Republican- and Democratic-appointed jurists. 

By not standing up to Trump even now, congressional Republicans will be doomed to spend 2022 defending his deranged conspiracy theories. By Election Day 2022, Trump will probably be talking about how little green men flying undetected in UFOs altered the ballots to elect Biden.

American patriotism through the ages has been linked with courage. This is the perfect weekend for congressional Republicans to show it with more than just empty platitudes about the Founding Fathers.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 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.