Letters From an American

Can the Republicans Get Their Act Together?

Can the Republicans Get Their Act Together?

A delegate holds signs at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

June 11, 2020

Considering that the stock market’s Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 1,862 points today, and that General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly apologized for permitting himself to be used in Trump’s photo-op last week, the story I’m going to start with tonight might seem an odd one to choose.

Today, the chair of the Republican National Committee Ronna McDaniel (who is a fervent Trump supporter despite the fact she is Utah Senator Mitt Romney’s niece) announced that Trump will accept the Republican nomination not in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Republican National Convention has been planned, but in Jacksonville, Florida.

I’m leading with this move because it is incredibly revealing. The public story is that Trump has changed the plan just 77 days before the convention because North Carolina’s Democratic governor Roy Cooper refuses to guarantee that the convention center can operate at full capacity despite the coronavirus pandemic. But today the Trump campaign illustrated that it is not, in fact, immune to pandemic fears. In order to register for Trump’s June 19 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where coronavirus infections are rising, attendees have to agree not to sue Trump’s campaign or the venue, “or any of their affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, contractors, or volunteers,” if they contract Covid-19.

Moving Trump’s speech to Florida might well not result in more attendees, but it should help him shore up support in the state, which has been faltering. He needs to win Florida to win the 2020 election.

Because the RNC signed a contract to meet in Charlotte, it has to hold at least some of the convention there. Today the executive committee agreed to slash all the official business of the party. One of the things it cut was writing a 2020 party platform, the document that explains to voters what the party will try to accomplish if it wins power. Trump will run on the exact same platform he ran on in 2016. It is so out of date it actually contains language attacking “the president,” because in 2016, the president was President Barack Obama.

The abandonment of writing a party platform, which is, after all, the central purpose of a political convention, seems a remarkable admission that Republican leaders either can’t manage or can’t be bothered with the basics of our political system. There had been fights in the White House as senior officials, led by Jared Kushner, kicked around the idea of turning the 58-page platform into a single note card of bullet points. Now it appears leaders have simply given up on adjusting party policies to today’s issues.

Instead of making an argument for policy, the Republicans are simply backing Trump. (RNC national press secretary Mandi Merritt blamed the lack of a platform on North Carolina Governor Cooper, whose refusal to guarantee a fully populated convention center “left our members with no choice.”)

Trump will give his acceptance speech in Jacksonville on August 27. The date is the sixtieth anniversary of a brutal attack on Black Jacksonville residents by white mobs brandishing baseball bats and ax handles, an event known as “Ax Handle Saturday.”

The abandonment of our democratic political process in deference to Trump was also on full display today when the administration announced it would refuse to provide transparency for $511 billion in tax-payer backed loans awarded to 4.5 million businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program in the CARES coronavirus relief bill. Back in March, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin negotiated a deal with Congress for congressional oversight of the spending in that bill, without which congressional Democrats would not agree to it.

There were supposed to be three bodies overseeing the $2 trillion law. The first was a Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, the inelegantly named “SIGPR.” The second was the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, made up of inspectors general from the agencies involved in the bill. It was placed under the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which is sort of the oversight team of government inspectors general themselves. The third was a congressional oversight commission.

But once the deal was cut, the president issued a signing statement saying that the oversight provisions violated the separation of powers by intruding on the rights of the president.

Democrats cried foul. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote to Mnuchin insisting that he defend the deal. “Given the substantial amount of taxpayer funds provided to address the economic impact of the coronavirus, and the considerable discretion you asked for,” they wrote, “Congress took special care” in creating oversight, and that oversight was “critical” to their support for the measure.

There is currently no SIGPR (I just had to work that horrible acronym in), although Trump did make a nomination that is currently before the Senate: he nominated Brian Miller, one of his own lawyers. Trump’s removal of Glenn Fine as the acting Department of Defense IG meant that Fine, who had been selected as chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, had to step down. Fine, whose firing drew a rare rebuke from former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who called him “a public servant in the finest tradition of honest, competent governance,” resigned from the DOD entirely on June 1.

So the weight of oversight has fallen to the congressional committee, and the government had indicated it would release detailed loan information to it. But today, Mnuchin said that information about the loans, which infamously went to large businesses and wealthy organizations at first (many later returned the loans) is “proprietary” and “confidential.”

Steve Ellis, president of the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told reporter Aaron Gregg of the Washington Post: “Clearly, this is meant to prevent some entities from being embarrassed, or being revealed…. Nobody forced them to take the money, and it was already set up so that they could return it with no questions asked. And they were told that this information would be made public when they applied for the loan.”

The conflict between our governmental system and the president is becoming clearer every day. That clarity is solidifying popular opposition to the administration and thus putting Republican leaders into a tough spot. Today, Trump defended his administration’s attacks on peaceful protesters over the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, and announced he is finalizing an executive order to encourage police to use “force with compassion.” Trump’s handling of the protests is unpopular, and Republican lawmakers who don’t want to alienate either pro-Trump or anti-Trump voters are keeping their heads down.

But today some Republican Senators began to distance themselves from him. In the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) offered an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill calling for the removal of names of Confederate leaders from all military assets– bases, aircrafts, ships, and so on—within three years. The amendment passed the Republican-dominated committee with some Republicans joining the Democrats. Trump has publicly opposed the amendment to this important bill, but stripping it out at this point will be awkward for Republicans.

So who’s going to blink first?

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.