August 19

By Susan Milligan

Former President Donald Trump could not conceal his glee when his chief GOP nemesis, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, was soundly rejected for reelection Tuesday by her Republican Party primary voters.

“Now she can finally disappear into the depths of political oblivion where, I am sure, she will be much happier than she is right now,” Trump said on his social media site, following up with the beyond-bold prediction that the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection would “quickly begin the beautiful process of dissolution.”

Two days later, Trump’s fortunes took a drastically different turn, when the former chief financial officer of the Trump organization, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded guilty in a scheme to defraud the federal government on taxes. The price of his mere five-month sentence? A promise to testify against the Trump Organization when prosecutors go to trial in late October – just weeks before midterm elections that have become far more competitive in recent weeks.

Hours later, a federal judge ordered that at least part of the affidavit justifying the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home should be unsealed. Trump himself has demanded that the entire affidavit be made public, keeping with his unfounded argument that the inquiry into his possession of government documents is a “witch hunt” driven by politics.

But since the affidavit, by definition, includes arguments by law enforcement agents on why they believe a crime has been committed and evidence is inside the structure they want to search, it’s likely the disclosure will not help the embattled former president.

The ping pong political week for Trump underscored the high-stakes situation for GOP candidates and the party itself, which this week finished the last set of primaries where fealty to Trump was on the ballot.

For Republican lawmakers and candidates, the message was clear: You’re either on the Trump train or you’re not. Step off and you might be left alone in the political wilderness. Stay on board and the train might go off the rails or even over a cliff, taking you with it.

“The Republican Party is going through an evolution, if not a revolution,” says Michael Binder, a University of North Florida political science professor. It’s not the same as in 2009, when the party took a harsh look at how and why it lost the 2008 presidential campaign, he notes. Instead, it’s about one man.

“It’s the Trumpification of the Republican Party, and you’re seeing it across primaries,” he says. What is still unclear, Binder says, is “whether or not that plays out in a large enough role to make over the party” after the midterms.

While the primary season continues into September, the contests where loyalty to Trump was a factor were completed this week. More than half of successful Republican candidates in the states that have held primaries so far have embraced Trump’s unfounded claim that the 2020 election was illegitimate, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

In the battleground states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republicans nominated gubernatorial candidates who are election deniers. In Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, the party nominated candidates for secretary of state who have questioned the 2020 election results. All would have a role in state certification of presidential election results in 2024.

An exception was incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who advanced to the general election with a first-place showing Tuesday night in the open Alaska primary.

“I hope that we do not become the party of one person,” Murkowski, who voted to convict the former president on charges of “incitement of insurrection,” told supporters Tuesday. “I hope that we do not become the party of Donald Trump.”

The week unfolded as the former president and his team peppered supporters with fundraising emails – at one point sending close to 30 in a 24-hour window – offering signed photos, signed golf hats, signed golf flags and invitations to become an “Ultra MAGA member” in exchange for contributions to his Save America PAC. Even Jared Kushner, who said he’d never before sent a fundraising email on behalf of his father-in-law, was slinging signed copies of his new book, “Breaking History: A White House Memoir,” to anyone who donated $75.

A colorful if unflattering New York Times review of the memoir, which is selling ahead of its Aug. 23 publish date for $24.50 on Amazon, described the book as reminding the reader “of watching a cat lick a dog’s eye goo.”

But the efforts seem to be paying off as reporting shows that Trump raked in $1 million a day last week in the wake of the FBI executing a search warrant on his Mar-a-Lago residence – an event that incensed the former president’s “law and order” and “back the blue” supporters and one that’s now likely to be the central campaign theme should Trump decide to run again for president in 2024.

“Without notification or warning, an army of agents broke into Mar-a-Lago,” he wrote to supporters this week. “A surprise RAID, POLITICS, and all the while, our Country is going to HELL at the hands of the Democrats.”

The search, which was aimed at recouping classified documents, was legally conducted after authorities secured a warrant signed by a judge. FBI agents took 11 sets of classified documents, including one set marked with the highest level of security classification.

But Trump’s decision to escalate the feud and incite his most ardent supporters – including by considering releasing the security footage of the search – continues even as FBI agents receive threats and intimidation from his allies and notably comes even as the walls continue to close in around the former president. Aside from the looming trial against the Trump Organization in New York, the former president faces an investigation in Georgia’s Fulton County into whether efforts were made to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election as well as potential indictments stemming from the House Jan. 6 committee inquiry.

The situation has tested Republicans, who don’t want to get drawn into Trump’s troubles but can’t reject him, either. The hyperbolic language typically associated with the right wing of the party, meanwhile, has spread to more mainstream members.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican seeking an eighth term this year, parroted a claim this week by the right wing that the new IRS agents to be hired under the Inflation Reduction Act President Biden signed Tuesday would go after middle-class taxpayers with big guns.

“Are they going to have a strike force that goes in with AK-15s, already loaded, ready to shoot some small business person in Iowa?” Grassley asked during a Fox News interview, appearing to run together the names of two popular firearms. “I think they’re going after middle class and small business people,” he added.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has said enhanced IRS enforcement would focus on people making more than $400,000 a year. Only a small number of IRS agents, called special agents, are armed, and they are used for cases involving criminal activity such as drugs, cybercrime and money laundering.

Similarly dramatic rhetoric has come from Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican long considered a shoo-in for reelection but who is behind – 44% to 48% – against likely Democratic opponent Val Demings in a UNF poll released this week.

“Please, don’t let America turn into the next banana republic,” Rubio wrote in a fundraising email, comparing the legal search of Trump’s home to persecution by “radical dictators” who want to silence their political opponents.

Rubio’s Florida Republican colleague, Sen. Rick Scott, has urged Americans not to apply for the new IRS jobs, saying that Republicans would defund the expansion if and when they take control after the November elections.

Potential 2024 Trump rivals, meanwhile, have been walking a finer line. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decried the “weaponization of federal agencies” after the Mar-a-Lago search. But he did not defend Trump or the former president’s conduct.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, in an appearance this week in early primary state New Hampshire, made a point of denouncing threats against law enforcement in the aftermath of the search.

“The attacks on the FBI must stop,” Pence said. “Calls to defund the FBI are just as wrong as calls to defund the police.”

Cheney, in an appearance on MSNBC, said she thought it might take several election cycles for the Republican Party to make its way back to its roots as a party of conservatism and not just a single personality.

Riders on the Trump Train may have a say in that. Or they may go over the cliff.