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Story highlights

Julian Zelizer: New emails from the President's son provide evidence that high-level members of the Trump campaign were willing to talk to Russians in search of damaging information about Hillary Clinton

Will some Republicans finally feel compelled to speak out against this administration? Zelizer asks

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst, is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

When Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out the email exchange that led to his meeting with a Russian lawyer about potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton in the summer of 2016, you could hear the silence among fellow Republicans.

The latest revelations seem to be the most damaging yet, providing some damning evidence that high-level members of the Trump campaign were having conversations with Russians who they thought had clear connections to Russian government and were willing to engage with them in search of damaging information about Clinton.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

They wanted it so badly,” Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who met with Trump Jr. last year, said on NBC’s “Today” show. The emails and the reports of the conversation leave many questions unanswered, questions investigators will no doubt examine in great detail. In the rapid-fire pace through which this scandal keeps unfolding, it is extremely important for every elected official to take a breath before reaching judgment and to make sure they have a full understanding of new information and the context in which it was produced.

But the biggest political question remains: How long will Republicans stand by this president? With Republicans in control of Congress, this may be the most far-reaching issue in terms of how this scandal will unfold.

It keeps getting harder for Republicans to absorb this heat and fend off the controversy. With Donald Trump Jr. releasing the emails himself (apparently in advance of another New York Times story on them), the President can’t call it “fake news.”

Republicans have many reasons to stop defending the President. Trump and his administration have a credibility crisis that is unlike anything we have seen in recent decades. At this point, Republicans have sat on their hands as the President and members of his team have repeatedly hidden information, twisted and changed their positions (sometimes, in the course of one day), lied about basic facts and acted to impede investigation.

If the Trump team is really innocent of any wrongdoing, they certainly don’t act this way. Their strongest and most consistent defense has been to keep blasting the alleged “fake news” industry, despite the fact that much of the false information comes right from them. Right now, a Republican would be almost foolhardy to publicly vouch for anything that the president says.

The Russia chaos has put a stranglehold on the Republican legislative agenda. This is the anti-New Deal, not because President Trump’s legislative accomplishments are so conservative, but because they don’t exist. The Republican dreams about what united government could bring back in January 2017 today seem comical.

The party is struggling to squeak out of Congress one single major bill, the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, which at this point seems to be in total jeopardy. The President’s antics and inability to stop this scandal have been extremely detrimental to Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has received no assistance, just obstacles, from the president of his own party. Many in the GOP had to spend time back in the district hearing from angry constituents over the Fourth of July recess, or literally trying to avoid the public celebrations that members of Congress usually treasure as a way to showcase themselves when back at home.

The Republican Party has prided itself as being the party that is tough on defense and firm with dangerous adversaries. It spent much of President Obama’s term blasting the administration for being too open about dealing with adversaries such as Iran.

Yet the information revealed this week suggests that much of Trump’s early embrace of Russia had little to do with détente or some grand diplomatic strategy, and was simply about the crass goal of winning a presidential election.

“I love it,” Trump Jr. wrote about the prospect of getting Russian information on Hillary Clinton and he released the emails without expressing any shame.

The President’s two-hour plus meeting with Putin at the G-20 Summit, regardless of anything said in the meeting, did exactly what the Russian leader has been hoping to achieve – it elevated his country’s standing despite the its aggression in the Ukraine and the intervention into elections here and around the world. For a party that prides itself on patriotism, as Republicans have for decades, it keeps getting harder to justify what certainly appears like a self-interested embrace of a dangerous and threatening regime.

Partisanship is an extraordinarily powerful force – and President Trump’s supporters love to point to his strong approval ratings with “the base” and with the Republican Party more broadly – but it is not impenetrable.

Presidents can do things to make it almost impossible for fellow party members to stand by their side. Republicans initially were very defensive about Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, but ultimately approached him and asked him to resign. Information can become so damning that it becomes impossible for all of the GOP to stay on the same page.

Some Republicans who are looking at 2018 and 2020 must be thinking how high of a cost they are willing to bear to defend the President. Republicans recalling the most virtuous moments in their party’s past must be thinking about how much damage they are willing to see inflicted on the party’s brand name before saying, “enough.” Those are the kinds of considerations that could put President Trump in the greatest peril.

It is possible to look into the eyes of congressional Republicans who are being interviewed about the recent news and see the anger, as well as frustration, they are feeling. There is probably a feeling sweeping through the party that it becomes harder day by day to keep saying there is clearly “nothing there” and that the country should move on, especially when the White House is doing very little to help with an agenda on Capitol Hill.

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But when more Republicans will start to act on these feelings and fears remains unclear. Would they just look at a smoking gun and act as if nothing was there, or would some Republicans finally feel compelled to speak out against this administration? If that party loyalty starts to fall apart, that would be the game changer.