By David Weigel,
Their TV screens screamed out the headlines. The news alerts rattled their phones. As Republican senators moved around the Capitol on Tuesday, they were asked again and again whether emails released by Donald Trump Jr. revealed collusion between Russian interlopers and his father’s 2016 presidential campaign.
For the most part, they shrugged.
“That’s the very thing that we need to not be distracted by,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “He’s not given any particular assignment in the administration,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). “I think this can be way overblown.”
One year after securing a Republican nomination that many in the party wanted him to lose, President Trump continues to defy predictions — and in some cases, hopes — of a political comeuppance. What Democrats saw as a break in the Trump/Russia investigation was processed by many Republicans, and much of conservative media, as one more distraction that was likely being overhyped.
“Donald Trump Jr. has done two things: He’s said I’d be happy to talk to the [Senate intelligence] committee and answer questions about this, and he’s been very forthcoming in terms of releasing those emails,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in a morning interview with Fox Business. “Is it the end of the world? No. Is it a terrible distraction that takes us away from getting health care done? Yes. It’s another little stumbling block.”
To Democrats and cable news producers, that was an understatement. The 2016 email from Rob Goldstone, a former family business partner, offered a chance to hear dirt on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” In jokes and grim analysis, there was speculation about whether the president could finish out his term, when the breaking point might come, and whether Republicans were closer to deciding to face 2018’s midterm elections under President Mike Pence.
In conservative media, a very different and parallel conversation unfolded: about the “Destroy-Trump Media” and its Wile E. Coyote-like attempts to bring down a president. On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh told listeners that he was “watching people lose their minds” because “they’ve got nothing.” On “Fox and Friends,” a morning show that the president watches regularly, co-host Brian Kilmeade asked Trump attorney Jay Sekulow if 2016 campaign veterans could vet themselves and release any more information about meetings with Russians, “so this drip-drip-drip doesn’t fuel other haters.”
Sekulow scoffed at the suggestion. “If he met with anyone with Russian descent, he’d be meeting with me,” he said. “This is much ado about nothing.”
That answer probably rang true with Republican voters, for whom the Russia story has been a consistent bust. The Gallup Poll’s tracker has found Trump’s approval among Republicans steady, since February, at 85 percent. Last week, before the new email was revealed, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 73 percent of Republicans unwilling to believe that the president had colluded with Russia; just 4 percent said he might have done so illegally.
“The president is playing a very narrow game right now, in which he’s just speaking to the Republican base — in particular, his base,” said Evan McMullin, a former House Republican staffer who waged an anti-Trump 2016 bid for president. “He’s acting, leading and speaking for them. If you’re trying to maintain a hardcore base of 35 percent support, it’s not actually that difficult. At least for a little while.”
For many conservatives, the rumble of scandal news on CNN, MSNBC and national newspapers is easily dismissed. On conservative media, from Reddit to Fox News, the story has largely been covered as a conspiracy theory. Monday night’s prime time shows on Fox, which ran after the contents of the email had been reported by the New York Times, largely covered the story as a sideshow.
“The Destroy-Trump-Media’s Russia psychosis is now back, and it’s worse than ever,” said Sean Hannity.
“I think if Trump Jr. puts Russian dressing on a salad, they’re going to say it’s treason,” said “The Five” co-host Jesse Watters. “The whole thing was set up by this Democratic firm that was connected to the fake Trump-Russian dossier. So, that could be a setup.”
Trump Jr. gave his only TV interview about the emails to Hannity, who said in a Tuesday evening preview of the interview on Fox that he “ran out of questions” in less than 20 minutes — and was eager to pivot back to questions about Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In pro-Trump coverage of the story, any theory has been plausible — so long as it absolved the president. Watters was one of several pundits speculating that the Clinton campaign could have set a trap for Trump’s family. A companion theory was that Trump Jr., who had no political experience, made an honest mistake.
“You wouldn’t need to have been in government to know not to do this,” said a baffled Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
Another theory, advanced by Sekulow and by Hannity, was that Clinton’s team was obscuring its own “collusion” — meetings between campaign staff and representatives of Ukraine and China. The latter meeting was revealed by emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, a theft intelligence agencies believe was linked to Russia. And that, said some Trump defenders, was not related to the new story at all.
“The fundamental driver of all of this has been the allegation that the Trump campaign colluded in stealing information from the Democratic National Committee and then distributing it through WikiLeaks,” former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday in a Fox News roundtable. “There’s no evidence of that.”
There’s even less evidence to support a popular Washington parlor game — asking when Republicans might finally turn on Trump. Just as in October 2016, when many Republicans who called on Trump to quit the presidential campaign eventually voted for him, the Russia blowups have not moved long-term Republican opinion.
“The things people are willing to say publicly and privately are very different,” said Katie Packer, a Republican operative who led a conservative anti-Trump super PAC in 2016. “There’s distaste for the way Trump is doing things. There’s a sense that he’s a little bit Teflon. So there’s a hesitancy to jump up and down and kick and scream, because there’s not any appetite for it outside Washington.”
On Tuesday, the safer bet was to bemoan how the endless Russia story was distracting from the party’s agenda. “There’s been so much speculation about the Trumps and the Kremlin and Putin, and possible collusion — and nothing has been found, whatsoever, to support that,” Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) said in an interview with MSNBC. “What about the development of nuclear capacities by Iran? What are we going to do about that? What about the real kitchen-table issues affecting the American people?”
And in the Tuesday interview with Fox Business, Wicker agreed with host Neil Cavuto that the story was largely a distraction.
“This is fodder for those on the left, right?” asked Cavuto. “And fodder for the president’s critics, and maybe an opportunity for them to never get this agenda addressed. Right?”
“You’ve said it well,” said Wicker. “I couldn’t have said it better.”