Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony may have seemed like a boon to Democrats, but it has another effect that has been little commented on: Donald Trump is now totally dependent on congressional Republicans to avoid impeachment and therefore has no choice but to be a cheerleader for their policies and to sign whatever legislation they send him.
When Trump was nominated, many people accepted his own self-characterization as a disruptive force within the Republican Party. But the party itself had already moved toward more extreme positions, and Trump’s cabinet appointments, proposed budget, moves toward economic and environmental deregulation, and repudiation of the Paris climate accord have been largely in line with the radicalism that now prevails among congressional Republicans.
But if there were any thought that Trump would defy the Republican majorities in Congress—insisting, for example, on a health-care bill that actually protected many of the people who voted for him—that is now clearly out of the question. Congressional Republicans will stand by him as long as he advances their agenda. If he becomes a hindrance, they can begin impeachment proceedings with what will likely be compelling evidence provided by the special counsel. Mike Pence will be waiting to take over.
Trump, to be sure, will never act like the little political lamb he must now become. He will remain personally volatile and unpredictable, continually threatening to break out of the cage he has put himself in and pressing for pet causes like the border wall. But on the big questions, we are in for a period of congressional government.
All the focus on Trump as an extremist has indirectly had the effect of minimizing how extreme congressional Republicans have become. When the health-care bill in the House of Representatives first went down to defeat because of opposition from the right-wing Freedom Caucus, there was a lot of talk about the influence of Republican moderates. But the final bill that passed the House with the support of the Freedom Caucus was more extreme than the earlier bill, and enough moderates went along with the party leadership to enable it to pass.
That House bill is now the basis of the legislation Republicans in the Senate are working on entirely behind closed doors and without any public hearings so as to provide Democrats and the public no opportunity to object. We are already hearing about the influence of Republican moderates in the Senate, even though they have apparently accepted the framework of the House bill, which will eliminate not just the expansion of Medicaid but the basic Medicaid entitlement and deprive millions of other people of the private insurance that they gained through the Affordable Care Act.
When Trump signs that legislation—as I expect he will in September—he will herald it as a great victory, the fulfillment of his party’s and his own pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare. This is exactly why at the Senate hearing where Comey made his devastating charges, Republicans pretended not to see the evidence of obstruction of justice. For the time being, they have no interest whatsoever in initiating proceedings against the president that would consume their agenda. They know they have Trump in a position where he has no real choice except to do what they want.
That’s not to say Trump is incapable of doing something self-destructive, as he has been wont to do. But if he has a basic sense of political self-preservation, he will take his cues from Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and act as their faithful servant.