What Trump’s Total GOP Control Means Next

The sweeping attacks from Republican elected officials against former President Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts last week send a clear signal that if he wins a second term, he will face even less internal resistance from the GOP than he did during his first four years in the White House.

Republican pushback was rare enough in his first term, against even Trump’s most extreme ideas and actions, but it did exist in pockets of Congress and among appointees inside his own administration with roots in the party’s prior traditions. The willingness now of so many House and Senate Republicans, across the GOP’s ideological spectrum, to unreservedly echo Trump’s denunciation of his conviction shows that the flickers of independence that flashed during his first term have been virtually extinguished as he approaches a possible second term.

The strong message of the near-universal Republican condemnation of the verdict is that “Donald Trump owns the Republican Party,” the political scientist Susan Stokes, who directs the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago, told me. “That means he can pretty much force the rest of the party leadership, if they see their future in the party, to toe the line, no matter what.”

GOP elected officials are aligning obediently behind Trump even as numerous signs suggest that the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority, and other GOP-appointed judges in the federal courts, may be more willing than in his first term to openly defend and enable his actions. And all of these indications of Trump’s tightening grip over Republicans in the electoral and legal arenas follow his description of a second-term agenda that pushes more aggressively against the limits of law and custom on presidential power.

That combination points to a possible second Trump term defined by both fewer constraints and more challenges to the traditional constitutional order. “What should most alarm Americans who believe that somehow ‘the system will hold’ is that for all the red hats and red ties Republican electeds don to appease their leader, they seem to have no red lines,” Deana El-Mallawany, a senior counsel for the bipartisan group Protect Democracy, told me in an email. “Which suggests that the most radical things Trump has hinted at—being a dictator (for a day), tearing up the constitution—which seem unthinkable today could just as easily come to pass in the very near future.”

Trump’s most loyal defenders have vied to denounce the New York verdict most extravagantly. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida took an early lead by equating it to a “show trial” in “communist countries.” But Rubio has had plenty of competition: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas likened the trial to proceedings in “banana republics.” Senator Mike Lee of Utah has gotten about a dozen other GOP senators to sign a letter pledging to use procedural tools to snarl all action in the chamber to protest the verdict. House Speaker Mike Johnson has similarly promised to use “everything in our arsenal” against the decision; Representative Jim Jordan, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who has already launched investigations against all of the prosecutors who have indicted Trump, has demanded that New York prosecutors appear at a hearing on the case next week. Other Trump allies have insisted that state and local Republican attorneys general and district attorneys manufacture indictments against Democratic politicians in retaliation.

Strikingly, several of the Republicans denouncing the decision have argued that not only were Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Judge Juan Merchan biased against Trump, but the Manhattan jury of ordinary citizens was as well. “The partisan slant of this jury pool shows why we ought to litigate politics at the ballot box and not in the courtroom,” Senator J. D. Vance of Ohio, one of Trump’s most unconditional defenders, insisted in his statement immediately after the verdict.

Juries “have been sacrosanct in our democracy,” and the fact that so many prominent Republicans “are just prepared to treat them as Democratic operatives rather than members of a community that have judged Trump guilty of 34 felonies,” Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of Democracy 21, a government-ethics watchdog group, told me, “tells us even more than what Trump himself has told us about what will happen in a Trump presidency. These elected officials are wide open to accepting an autocracy.”

The breadth of the Republican rejection of the verdict has been as emphatic as its depth. The criticism has come not only from reflexive Trump defenders such as Vance and Rubio, but from others who had previously kept somewhat more distance from the former president. They include several congressional Republicans, such as Mike Lawler and Marc Molinaro, who represent House districts carried by President Joe Biden, as well as Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who voted to convict Trump after his impeachment over the January 6 riot.

When former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, now the GOP’s Senate nominee in the state, declared last week that Americans should respect the results of the legal process, Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, newly installed as the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, and the Trump campaign strategist Chris LaCivita both immediately portrayed Hogan as an apostate who should be shunned. Hogan “doesn’t deserve the respect of anyone in the Republican Party at this point, and quite frankly, anybody in America,” Lara Trump declared on CNN on Sunday.

To former Republican Representative Charlie Dent, now the executive director and vice president of the congressional program at the Aspen Institute, such attacks on Hogan—and the paucity of Republicans defending him—are the most ominous aspects of the party backlash. Hogan, Dent points out, is seeking a Senate seat in a strongly Democratic-leaning state where an undeniable political imperative to establish his independence from Trump applies. That GOP leaders are willing to assail Hogan for creating any distance from Trump even in such a race, Dent told me, shows that personal fealty has eclipsed all other party priorities—including winning elections and majorities.

“What Lara Trump is essentially saying is it’s really only about her father-in-law,” he told me. “It’s about pledging a loyalty oath to one man regardless of the electoral outcome.”

Dent views the GOP response to the verdict as an early warning that the pressure for lockstep congressional loyalty will be even more intense in a second Trump term than his first. “Whatever the issue is, if they are in the majority, he is going to expect all of them just to carry his water, no matter how dirty it is,” said Dent, who also serves as a senior adviser to Our Republican Legacy, a group recently launched by several former GOP senators critical of Trump. “The truth is, if there is a Republican [House] majority after this election, it will be a very slim one. So he won’t permit any deviation on virtually anything.”

Leslie Dach, a senior adviser to the liberal-leaning Congressional Integrity Project, points out that virtually all of the congressional Republicans who resisted Trump during his first term—including Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney—either have left or are leaving Congress. Though much less outspoken, Senator Mitch McConnell and former Speaker Paul Ryan, who led the Republican congressional majorities when Trump was first elected in 2017, were also cool to him in their own ways. With Johnson established as speaker and McConnell stepping down as Senate minority leader, both the congressional GOP’s rank and file and its leadership are certain to be more deferential to a reelected Trump. “There’s an arms race among these Republicans to be the leader of the Trump pack,” Dach told me.

The prospect that the GOP Congress would be more subservient to Trump in a second term could be especially consequential because he is proposing so many policies that will push against legal and political boundaries. Trump has pledged to use the Justice Department to pursue “retribution” against his political opponents and has not ruled out firing U.S. attorneys who refuse his orders to pursue specific prosecutions; repeatedly promised a mass deportation effort against undocumented migrants that could involve deploying the National Guard from red states to blue cities; threatened to deploy the National Guard in Democratic-run cities to fight crime, even over the objections of state and municipal officials; promised unilateral military action inside Mexico against drug cartels, with or without permission from its government; repeatedly suggested he would restore his policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border; and indicated that he will step back from America’s traditional alliances, by distancing the U.S. from NATO as well as by pressuring Ukraine to quickly accept a settlement with Russia. He has even dangled the possibility of seeking a third presidential term, which the Constitution explicitly prohibits.

After the GOP’s latest demonstration of loyalty to Trump, what, if anything, on that list might generate meaningful resistance from congressional Republicans is unclear, especially if they control both legislative chambers after November’s election, which is a real possibility if Trump wins. Dent told me that pressuring Ukraine into an early settlement, which would almost certainly involve leaving Russia in control of large swaths of the country, might spur resistance from many congressional Republicans. Some, he predicts, might also resist if a reelected Trump pursued his promise to again seek a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. But mostly, Dent said, “the more pragmatic members in those marginal districts will be seen as the heretics if they don’t toe the line. They will not be permitted the luxury of dissent. All these members are going to be under terrible pressure to vote for every bad idea Trump has.”

Trump’s success at rallying congressional Republicans behind his claim that his trial was “rigged” already suggests that large numbers of them may support him if he loses in November but claims that this year’s election, too, was stolen from him. Several senior Republicans have pointedly refused to commit to accepting the result, and Johnson—who led an effort to enlist congressional Republicans in backing a lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election—has joined Trump in amplifying groundless claims that large numbers of noncitizens could taint the November result.

In 2022, the House and Senate approved, and Biden signed, revisions to the 19th-century Electoral Count Act that make it more difficult for Congress to object to the certification of the presidential election. That followed the effort of nearly two-thirds of House Republicans to throw out the 2020 election results from several swing states that voted for Biden. Among other things, the new law requires more House members to sign on to a challenge to a state certification before it can be considered, while also requiring a majority in both legislative chambers to approve any challenge.

But even these safeguards leave open a straightforward path for Trump’s congressional allies. In the entirely plausible scenario that Republicans win both chambers in November, while Trump loses to Biden, the GOP could still reject the election results by a simple majority vote in both the House and Senate. “At some point, the rule of law depends on key institutional actors being willing to follow it,” Jessica Marsden, who oversees Protect Democracy’s work on elections, told me, and the reaction to the Trump verdict shows “a real willingness among the current Republican Party to throw the rule of law under the bus.”

Any challenge from Trump or his allies to this year’s election results will provide another test for the federal courts. Along with the Supreme Court, lower courts sweepingly rejected the attempts by Trump and his associates to overturn the 2020 election results. That followed a Trump first term in which the Supreme Court often sided with Trump but at times rebuffed him (for instance, by ruling on procedural grounds against his attempt to require a citizenship question on the census).

But almost all of those Supreme Court decisions were rendered while Republican appointees held a narrower, 5–4 majority. The GOP-appointed majority expanded to 6–3 when Amy Coney Barrett succeeded the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg just before the 2020 election, and court watchers point to signs that this bigger Republican majority may be more inclined to rule in Trump’s favor.

Most telling has been the Court’s slow timeline for deciding on Trump’s claim of absolute presidential immunity, which has virtually eliminated the possibility that he will face a trial before the next election on the charge that he attempted to subvert the last one. And when the matter is finally decided, a ruling even partially upholding Trump’s claim could embolden him to stretch the bounds of executive authority in a second term.

Compounding concerns about the Court’s slow pace in the immunity case have been the allegations of bias on the issue swirling around Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts’s categorical dismissal of demands for the justices to recuse themselves from the proceedings. All of this has occurred as Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, has stalled the Justice Department’s classified-documents case against Trump.

“The conventional wisdom after 2020 was the courts held, and that’s true,” Stokes, at the Chicago Center on Democracy, told me. “On the other hand, as with Judge Cannon in Florida, we are seeing the effect of the Trump federal-court appointees kicking in, and with the Supreme Court participating in the slow-walking [of the immunity case], I don’t think we can count on the courts in the same way.”

Stokes said that efforts by autocratic leaders to diminish the power of the nation’s highest court are typical in countries experiencing an erosion of democracy. The U.S. is experiencing a distinct variation on that model, with everything indicating that the highest court itself, she said, “has become more partisan and more aligned” with Trump’s movement. If Trump wins and pursues even a portion of the agenda he has outlined, she told me, “we’re facing the scenario where we can’t count on the legislative branch and we can’t count on the courts” to defend constitutional principles.

Maybe the most revealing moment in the entire GOP eruption against the Trump verdict came last week, when Johnson reassured his Fox News hosts during an interview that he expected the Supreme Court to eventually overturn the conviction. “I think that the justices on the Court—I know many of them personally—I think they are deeply concerned about that, as we are,” the House speaker said. “So I think they’ll set this straight.”

Johnson later clarified that he had not personally spoken with any of the justices about the Trump verdict, but that only magnified the import of his initial words—revealing the extent to which he considered the GOP-appointed justices part of the Republican team, receptive to the leadership’s signals about the actions it expects. Right now, the clearest signal is that the leadership expects all Republicans to lock arms around Trump, no matter what he has done in the past or plans for the future. “The guardrails,” said Dach of the Congressional Integrity Project, “are gone.”

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