May 31, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The cracks in Trump’s GOP shield

Illustration of President Trump behind a cracking shield with the GOP logo on it

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

President Trump’s mockery of coronavirus masks, his false claims about the dangers of voting by mail and his insinuations that a cable TV nemesis was involved in a murder are testing more high-profile Republicans' willingness to look the other way.

The big picture: Republicans learned a long time ago how dangerous it is to alienate Trump’s base — which is why any hint of disagreement, even a whisper, is so remarkable when it happens.

Here’s how Trump has pushed the limits:

Masks: Trump refuses to wear them at public events and has even turned them into a symbol of a culture war, accusing one White House reporter of being "politically correct" for wearing one.

  • Reality check: That’s basically a middle finger to public health experts, who say the masks are needed to help prevent people — including some who may not know they’re sick — from spreading the virus to others.

This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a point of embracing the public health recommendations — putting on a mask at appearances in Kentucky and declaring, “There should be no stigma attached to wearing a mask."

  • He’s not the only Republican to counterprogram Trump. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said wearing a mask is "about loving your fellow human being. … You are not wearing it so much for yourself as you are wearing it for that person that you will come in contact with," per CNN.
  • North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum urged his state’s residents to “dial up your empathy” and called the mask debate “a senseless dividing line.”
  • Even Trump favorite Sean Hannity declared: “If you can't social distance, please wear the mask.”

Joe Scarborough: The MSNBC host and former GOP congressman has gotten under Trump’s skin by unleashing extended tirades against him every morning — and now Trump has been insinuating on Twitter that Scarborough was involved in the death of a former congressional staffer in 2001.

  • Reality check: The medical examiner ruled the death an accident and concluded that the former staffer, Lori Klausutis, had a heart condition and died when she fell and hit her head on a desk, per

Trump’s tweets prompted House Republican Conference chair Liz Cheney to call on Trump to lay off. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. He’s the commander in chief of this nation. And it’s causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died,” Cheney told reporters.

Voting by mail: Trump has been falsely suggesting that voting by mail is a “scam” and will lead to massive voting fraud — a charge he can now easily resurrect if he loses in November.

  • Reality check: People vote by mail all the time. About a quarter of all voters in 2018 cast their ballots by mail, according to the Election Assistance Commission.
  • Per election law expert Rick Hasen, the risk of fraud isn’t zero, but it’s small and easily managed.

After Trump threatened to withhold funds from Nevada for sending out mail voting ballots, its Republican secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske, pushed back in a statement: “For over a century, Nevadans, including members of the military, citizens residing outside the state, voters in designated mailing precincts, and voters requesting absentee ballots, have been voting by mail with no evidence of election fraud.”

The World Health Organization: After Trump announced Friday that the U.S. will sever its ties with the organization, Senate health committee chair Lamar Alexander said in a statement: "I disagree with the president’s decision."

  • There should be a close look at the mistakes the organization may have made on the coronavirus, Alexander said, but "the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it."

Minneapolis: Republicans were more subtle in distancing themselves from Trump's tweet warning the Minneapolis protesters that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

  • But there was an unmistakable difference in the tone of McConnell's statement — which declared that "our city, our state, and our country have to pull together" — and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's statement on Twitter that George Floyd's memory should be honored by "rebuilding America into a more perfect union."

The bottom line: It’s not exactly a revolt, but coming from Republicans and allies who have closed ranks with Trump at every step, even the small cracks suggest that some of them are trying to send him a message.

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected to show that the House Republican Conference chair is Liz Cheney (not Lynne Cheney).

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