The Senate has a litany of tasks to complete before Congress ends: its members must strike a deal on the debt ceiling, lest House Republicans use it to take the next Congress hostage; they need to come to an agreement to keep the government open; and they are trying to pass legislation to codify protections for same-sex and interracial marriage. Oh, and there’s a potential railroad strike.
Instead of confronting these problems head-on, Senate Republicans have found themselves stuck in a time warp, spending Monday evening having to answer for former president Donald Trump’s misdeeds.
This time around, the disaster is his dinner with white supremacist and antisemite Nick Fuentes and rapper-turned-professional bigot Ye, formerly known as Kanye West. It’s an eerie flashback to the days of Mr Trump’s first campaign and presidency, when Senate Republicans were obliged to answer for every outrageous tweet, egregious insult or outright lie he told.
The difference is that, today, many Republicans are much more willing to denounce him.
Two years ago, Senator Joni Ernst won reelection in Iowa the same night Mr Trump won the Hawkeye state. Now a member of the Republican Senate leadership, she was at one point interviewed to be Mr Trump’s running mate. On Monday, Ms Ernst had only one word to say to The Independent about the Mar-a-Lago dinner, and it was worth repeating: “Ridiculous. Ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who has mainly been focusing on getting the Respect for Marriage Act over the finish line, vocally denounced the meeting.
“First, I honestly didn’t know who he was,” he told The Independent. “If the reports are true and the president didn’t know who he was, whoever allowed them in the room should have been fired.”
This new willingness among many Republicans to condemn the former president began to show itself after the midterm elections. Several of Mr Trump’s endorsed candidates flopped in winnable races, arguably costing his party the Senate and limiting its House majority to a mere handful of votes. (Side note: The batch of failed Trump endorsements makes a convenient alibi for those who don’t want to blame the overturning of Roe v Wade). The fact other Republicans, like Ron DeSantis, are looking ever more viable for a 2024 race means a convenient off-ramp could soon be in sight.
For now, Mr Trump is still their problem. As we explained on Monday, he’s still widely popular and sought-after in the party. The GOP’s Senators had a chance to ditch him in the post-January 6 impeachment trial. In the end, not enough of them were prepared to take it. Yes, it would have angered the base and likely cost some incumbents their seats, but it would have allowed them to tell voters it was time to move on.
The upshot is that those Republicans who declined to throw Mr Trump away are now tethered to his problems, even as they remain desperate – some more so than ever – to get away from him for good. Conversely, some of the Republican Senators who did decide to purge Mr Trump after the Capitol attack have clearer consciences.
Asked what he thought of the West-Fuentes encounter, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina who voted to convict Mr Trump and led the Senate Intelligence Committee during its investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 election, brushed off the question.
“I could care less who they have dinner with,” Mr Burr told a gaggle this week, as he roamed the halls without a tie. “Do I look like somebody that cares?”
Senator Mitt Romney, who returned from his Thanksgiving break sporting the beginnings of a beard, was more forceful.
“There’s no bottom to the degree to which he is willing to degrade himself and the country for that matter,” he told reporters, noting how he voted to convict him twice. “I don’t think he should be the nominee of our party in 2024. And I certainly don’t want him hanging over our party like a gargoyle.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who last week beat back a Trump-endorsed challenger in the state’s new ranked-choice voting system, was equally critical.
“We all have to be responsible for our actions and who we meet with,” she told The Independent.
But many Republicans are still too afraid of their base for this sort of talk – and many younger Republican Senators are in fact willing to openly court it.
When asked about the dinner, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who famously objected the 2020 election results even after the deadly riot at the Capitol, immediately pivoted to talking about Representative Ilhan Omar’s comments about Israel – remarks for which she apologized, but which Republicans say are reason to remove her from the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I think folks that are avowed antisemites should not be given a platform or a voice,” Mr Hawley said.