President Donald Trump might finally have broken Washington.
A Trump-induced midsummer madness enveloped the capital Tuesday, melting down some of the last bonds of civility needed for a functioning governing system.
The uproar set off by Trump’s racist tweets echoed from the White House to Capitol Hill, confirming the truism that no one who chooses to go into battle alongside or against this street fighting President ever emerges truly unscathed.
The House erupted in bitter recriminations as Democrats passed a resolution condemning Trump for telling four minority lawmakers to “go back” to their “crime infested” countries. Three of the four women were born in the US. The other is a naturalized citizen.
Only four Republicans voted with the Democrats. The rest of their party instead tried to censure Speaker Nancy Pelosi – surreally accusing her of breaking the chamber’s arcane manners when she said Trump’s rhetoric was “disgraceful and disgusting” and “racist.”
At one point, the presiding officer, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, laid down his gavel and walked out in frustration.
Republicans twisted themselves in knots to avoid angering constituents by condemning the President’s tweets, and sought to rebrand them as a patriotic denunciations of the extreme socialism they say is infecting the Democratic Party.
“I think this party has been very clear, we are the party of Lincoln,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.
The Republican strategy was a reminder that most lawmakers in divided, gerrymandered America are more concerned about being primaried by a more radical activist than seeking the disappearing political center ground. It also underscored the omnipresent power of a President who warned colleagues whose history shows no previous sign of being reluctant to condemn racism not to show “weakness.”
In an incongruous moment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was stumped when asked what he would do if someone told his Taiwan-born wife to go back to the nationalist island.
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In the twilight zone of the White House, the man who unleashed the fury, Trump, expressed disgust at the “vile, horrible statements” said by the women he targeted over the color of their skin.
In a bizarre moment outside, senior Trump aide Kellyanne Conway demanded to know the ethnicity of a reporter who asked her which country the four American lawmakers should return to.
In a later Fox News interview, Conway said the women represented “the dark underbelly” of disrespect for America’s military.
And in another surreal twist to the situation, Conway’s husband George earlier penned his latest devastating op-ed blasting his wife’s boss as a “racist President” beyond the bounds of human decency.
But white nationalist Richard Spencer complained to CNN that Trump wasn’t going far enough, saying he gave the movement nothing “outside racist tweets” that seem like the came from “a drunk uncle.”
The price of division
At times, it was hard to believe such scenes – inciting buried hatreds and toxicity that only racial politics can provoke – were taking place one-fifth of the way through the 21st Century.
Yet this is what the Trump presidency has wrought. There is a price for the constant tearing of some of the nation’s deepest divides. Some of it was on display in the rising tensions and distemper in Washington on Tuesday.
The lasting impact of such conscious polarization on the part of a President – an office holder who is normally looked on to heal national wounds – is not yet clear. But it is likely to be discombobulating and to leave the country more torn and difficult to govern whenever it is that Trump leaves the political scene.
Even Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived former White House communications director and longtime Trump friend, rebuked the President’s “bully-ish, Neanderthal-ish” racist comments.
And Tuesday is only the beginning. Since Trump has put white nationalist fear mongering at the center of his reelection campaign, the atmosphere will surely worsen as 2020 looms.
“This is not going to be the last time this happens. We are going to be having this discussion a lot in the next 17 months because he thinks it is to his advantage to do it,” David Axelrod, a CNN senior political analyst and former Barack Obama strategist said on “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
“And, yes, it is important for us as a country to express our moral outrage about these tactics, but at some point, they have to be discussed as tactics.”
Under normal circumstances, it would be a legacy-defining moment if a President was rebuked for racist language by the one half of a rival branch of government.
That it is not is a measure of how Trump broke the political mold, enjoys impunity for his boundless conduct and has utterly co-opted his party.
In the warped political calculations of the Trump era, the developments in the last few days might even come to be seen as some kind of political victory for the President.
By singling out Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, he hoped to make some of the most radical Democrats the face of the party ahead of 2020. They have promised not to take Trump’s “bait” but conservative media is making sure that Trump’s base sees plenty of the quartet. It’s also painting the President’s racism as an example of liberal hysteria and yet more victimization of Trump by critics who are obsessed with identity politics.
And the President is not going to lose any sleep about being censured by the House. He’s always framed himself as the scourge of the Washington elite and he knows GOP control of the Senate means he won’t be embarrassed in the other chamber.
And for a day at least, the Democrats were distracted from their plans to pass a positive agenda on issues like health care, education and climate change that preoccupy their voters.
Normally, at moments of Trump-induced dysfunction, commentators note that the President engineers chaos as a master stroke to keep his political foes off balance.
His instinctive, incessant stoking of his base is interpreted as an effort to emulate his shock 2016 election win. Yet the President’s inflammatory rhetoric during the midterm elections seemed to alienate many more moderate voters who he will still need to win a second term.
He’s playing a risky political game – though it may be the only one he really knows how to play.
Looking for cover
Even in the most distasteful Washington storms, political leaders grope for whatever incremental cover they can find.
By presenting herself as the face of the resolution condemning Trump, Pelosi was able to mend bonds with the four congresswomen with whom she was involved in a spat last week about their flouting of party discipline as she seeks to protect the more moderate caucus members who won her the House in 2018.
It seems more than a few days ago that Ocasio-Cortez claimed the speaker was “singling out” freshmen women of color.
For a few days at least, Pelosi’s steps to confront and condemn the President could alleviate some of the pressure building up from restive Democrats angry that she has slow walked impeachment.
And she succeeded in getting Republicans on the record denying that Trump’s suggestion that the four American lawmakers “go back” to their “broken and crime infested” countries is racist.
McConnell, who has no appetite to anger the Trump base as he seeks to hold onto the Senate next year, attempted to ease the political pressure on his own troops.
“I think there’s been a consensus that political rhetoric has really gotten way, way overheated all across the political spectrum,” he said, mostly blaming Democrats and not at all blaming Trump.
“We all know politics is a contact sport, but it’s about time we lowered the temperature all across the board. All of us ought to contribute to a better level of discourse.”
Asked by CNN’s Manu Raju what he would say if someone told his wife, Elaine Chao, Trump’s Transportation secretary to “go back” to where she came from, McConnell took refuge in a non sequitur argument about how he was a fan of legal immigration.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Ashleigh Killough and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this story