News Analysis: For Republicans, ‘The Dam Has Broken.’ But For How Long?

Jul 18, 2018, 12:42 PM

After 17 months, three weeks and six days of Donald J. Trump’s tumultuous presidency, some of his fellow Republicans had finally had enough. “The dam has broken,” Senator Bob Corker, a Republican critic from Tennessee, said on Tuesday.

But has it really broken and if so for how long? As Mr. Trump scrambled to patch any holes on Tuesday by reimagining his extraordinary news conference with Russia’s president the day before in Helsinki, Finland, the question was whether he had reached a genuine turning point or simply endured another one of those episodes that seems decisive but ultimately fades into the next one.

For the moment, at least, this time did feel different. After seeming to take President Vladimir V. Putin’s word over that of America’s intelligence agencies on Russian election meddling, Mr. Trump was being accused not only of poor judgment but of treason — and not just by fringe elements and liberal talk show hosts, but by a former C.I.A. director.

In a presidency without precedent, mark another moment for the history books. While the accusation of treason has been thrown around on the edges of the political debate from time to time, never in the modern era has it become part of the national conversation in such a prominent way.

To the president’s defenders, this all sounds like another eruption of what they often call Trump Derangement Syndrome. That he drives his critics to such extremes, they argue, says more about them than it does about Mr. Trump. As the president backtracked on his deferential comments at Monday’s meeting with Mr. Putin and asserted that he really does accept that Russia intervened in the 2016 election, allies assumed that this, too, would blow over.

But the list of Republicans rebuking the president included not just the usual suspects like Mr. Corker, who has been a frequent critic and plans on retiring when his term is up in January, but friends of the president like the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who called his performance in Finland “the most serious mistake of his presidency,” and the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which called it a “national embarrassment.”

Even some of the normally friendly folks at Fox News expressed astonishment, including Neil Cavuto and Abby Huntsman, whose father, Jon Huntsman, is Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Moscow.

While Republican leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin trod more carefully on Tuesday, focusing their fire on Russia rather than the president, they were seeking ways to demonstrate their distance, perhaps with new sanctions on Moscow or hearings to grill members of the Trump administration.

And Republicans were eager to latch onto Mr. Trump’s retreat to avoid a confrontation. “I wish he had said it in front of President Putin and the world yesterday, but yeah, I take him at his word if he said he misspoke, absolutely,” Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said on Fox News.

That Russia would become the third rail for the party of Ronald Reagan is a sign of just how far politics have shifted under Mr. Trump. Republicans once denounced President Barack Obama for suggesting that he would have more “flexibility” to work with Mr. Putin after his re-election; now Mr. Trump treats Mr. Putin as a trusted friend.

And that was too much for John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director who had already emerged as one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal critics. He called the performance “nothing short of treasonous.” The late-night hosts Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel also invoked treason on their shows. The front-page banner headline for The New York Daily News declared “OPEN TREASON.”

Max Boot, the former Republican who has become one of Mr. Trump’s sharpest critics, noted in a column on Monday in The Washington Post that accusing him of treason was once unthinkable. No longer. “If anyone is ‘the enemy of the people,’ it is Trump himself,” he wrote.

Mr. Trump returned to the White House ...