With the case for impeaching President Donald Trump already overwhelming and getting stronger every day, Republican politicians and defenders of the president are stuck in a vexing bind about how to fight back against the breakneck pace of the Democrats’ inquiry.
Human reactions to the undeniable but uncomfortable truths are widely varied, but many types of responses can be understood through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s notion of the “five stages of grief.” Kübler-Ross developed the framework to model the pathway patients who learn they have a terminal illness take while coming to accept their fate. Though the framework has been criticized, and even Kübler-Ross argued that it was misunderstood to be a predictive tool laying out a linear path of clearly delineated stages, it can be helpful in identifying and classifying emotional responses to troubling realities.
And while the reaction to Trump’s clear guilt of a high crime isn’t the same as grieving a death, it does impose significant psychological burdens on those who have built political hopes and ambitions around the president. Impeachment in the House, almost all but guaranteed at this point, could itself be traumatic for politicians and allies deeply invested in Trump’s presidency. So it shouldn’t be surprising that reactions might mimic grief.
I should also note that this framework isn’t to suggest that all Republicans are necessarily going to proceed to the final stage of grief — acceptance — or even that any single Republican has experienced each individual stage. But each stage has been pretty clearly demonstrated in the public actions of GOP officials and defenders:
Trump himself, of course, shows plenty of denial about the situation he’s in:
“There are no felonies, there are no Impeachable offenses. The Constitution’s very clear that you need bribery, treason, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. You can’t be impeached for the conduct that’s been alleged in this case.” @AlanDersh Dershowitz. @seanhannity A Scam!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2019
Sometimes, he even denies that “impeachment” itself is going on at all:
As I learn more and more each day, I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2019
Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, too, seemed in denial about the case against the Trump last week during a press conference I called an “avalanche of confessions.” He insisted that there was nothing wrong with delaying military aid to Ukraine as a quid pro quo to get the country to investigate the president’s opponents. This had clearly been a red line that Trump’s own allies had said he couldn’t cross, but Mulvaney, it seemed, was blissfully unaware. He even said, preposterously, that the White House didn’t need to have a war room to fight impeachment because Trump hadn’t done anything wrong.
After Mulvaney realized his “quid pro quo” admission was a mistake, he quickly started to lie about it — and lashed out at the press. He falsely said that “the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump.” This was just false, but it was easier to get angry at the media than admit the truth.
Another clear example of anger came from Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama in a discussion with CNN’s Manu Raju. When asked about Ambassador Bill Taylor’s recent statement to Congress, which outlined clear evidence of Trump’s quid pro quo, Brooks became belligerent with Raju:
Tried to ask Rep. Mo Brooks about Taylor testifying that he had been told Trump wanted probes announced before releasing aid and he erupted over the question. “The opening statement doesn’t make any difference!” he said. Asked about the substance, “it doesn’t make any difference” pic.twitter.com/1O7KXkvClE
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) October 23, 2019
Trump has also, of course, displayed anger, recently calling his critics “human scum.” This might just be a performance, though, and not genuine anger. But at a recent press conference in the White House, Trump became genuinely fired up at a reporter pressing him on his conduct in the Ukraine scandal:
“I’ve given you a long answer,” Trump continued. “Ask this gentleman a question. Don’t be rude.”
“No sir, I don’t want to be rude. I just wanted you to have a chance to answer the question that I asked you,” said Mason.
“I’ve answered everything! It’s a whole hoax!” Trump shot back.
Many Republicans seem prepared to admit that Trump did something wrong in the Ukraine scandal, but they’re not prepared to accept he should be impeached and removed for it. Some of these arguments take the form of something like bargaining. Consider, for instance, Tucker Carlson’s recent piece written with Neil Patel in the Daily Caller that argued Trump’s call with Ukraine should not have happened. (They also falsely claimed the scandal doesn’t include a quid pro quo.) They wrote:
Millions of Americans voted for Trump to try to shock our political system into finally listening to their concerns. How do you suppose they’ll feel about a system that instead removes Trump from our democracy? You don’t have to be an especially deep thinker to realize this is a recipe for social upheaval.
There’s clearly some bargaining going on here, if not a direct threat: Impeach the president, and you’ll be sorry. Leave him alone, and his voters will stay calm.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, too, tried to engage in some implicit bargaining when discussing the criminal investigation related to the impeachment inquiry that is ensnaring Rudy Giuliani:
“So, if we want to investigate Rudy Giuliani’s financial dealings, by all means do it. But at the same time, you should, if you want to be fair, investigate Hunter Biden’s economic dealings in Ukraine as well,” he told MSNBC. When his interviewer pointed out that Trump’s own children are engaged in open conflicts of interest much more sprawling than Hunter Biden’s, Paul said pursuing these matters would be the “politics of self-destruction” and would “criminalize all politicians.” In other words: Let the Trump and his circle get away with their abuses, and we’ll let Democrats get away with their abuses.
That’s not actually how any of this works, but it may be easier for a Republican like Paul to cope with than the truth.
But some Republicans do seem to appreciate the unique gravity of Trump’s offenses, and the realization seems to rattle and actually sadden them.
One unnamed Republican source told the conservative outlet The Resurgent, before the whistleblower complaint had become public, that the document would paint “a clear path to impeachment.” They added, clearly dour: “I wasn’t happy with the transcript, but it was Trump. What do you expect? Now we are dealing with something that looks like it could be outside the bounds of acceptable conduct.”
And on Wednesday, after the testimony from Bill Taylor was made public, the second-highest-ranking Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, revealingly said: “The picture coming out of it, based on the reporting that we’ve seen, I would say is not a good one.”
Similarly, a Republican source reportedly said Wednesday of the inquiry: “This is shaping up to be a very dark moment for the Trump White House.”
And when the allegations of misconduct in the Ukraine matter first came to light, Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Florida and Ben Sasse of Nebraska both rejected the openly hostile approach of many of their allies, both admitting that they were “troubled” by the reports.
To be sure, not many Republicans seem to have accepted the fact of the damning case for Trump’s impeachment. But Romney, at least for now, does seem to have moved on from being “troubled” to being at peace with the situation. He’s signaled that he’s open to potentially voting to remove Trump when the trial comes to the Senate, depending on how the evidence falls out.
And There’s one other case study that might show what acceptance looks like: Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. Amash was a Republican, but he left the party recently and concluded that Trump was worthy of impeachment based on the revelations in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. He has continued his criticisms of the president since the Ukraine scandal broke, calling Trump’s call with President Volodymyr Zelensky “a devastating indictment of the [U.S.] president.”
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