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Trump Island: Risk rising with Republican leaders

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

It started with Charlottesville. The pardon of Joe Arpaio sped it up.

Until now, most Republicans on the Hill have either backed Trump, or mostly stayed silent about their differences. Now, he's being openly defied.

Several of the best-known names in the Republican Party broke over the pardon, including Sen. John McCain, Jeb Bush and — most surprisingly and consequentially — Speaker Paul Ryan.

  • Republicans have come out against Trump, but they have tended not to be leadership figures. And the critiques have rarely been on matters of policy and decision-making — more on rash tweets.
  • Doug Andres, a Ryan spokesman, said in a statement on Arpaio: "The speaker does not agree with this decision. Law enforcement officials have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States. We should not allow anyone to believe that responsibility is diminished by this pardon."
  • McCain, who represents Arpaio, tweeted: "@POTUS's pardon of Joe Arpaio, who illegally profiled Latinos, undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law."

Even in the early days of his presidency, when his leverage was at its peak, Trump never had more than a handful of loyalists on Capitol Hill, Axios' Jonathan Swan points out:

  • Most Republicans kept quiet about their distaste for him, either out of fear that he'd go on a Twitter rampage against them, or that by attacking him they'd undermine a legislative agenda many have been waiting eight years to enact.
  • After the President has spent weeks seemingly divorcing himself from the GOP — openly blaming Mitch McConnell for healthcare's failure and pre-blaming McConnell and Ryan for debt-ceiling headaches — many feel liberated to speak their minds.

All that will hamper Trump's ability to help muscle tax reform through Congress. But the endgame is Special Counsel Bob Mueller:

  • Trump's attacks on McConnell are self-defeating for a lot of reasons. But if Mueller ever makes an impeachment referral (like the Watergate special counsel did), Trump needs McConnell more than anyone in the world.
  • Especially if it's 2019 and there's a Democratic House that could impeach through simple majority vote.

While praised by the establishment, Ryan could pay a grassroots price for the brushback on Arpaio:

  • A Republican lobbyist told me: "The base is gonna eat Ryan for breakfast."
  • Steve Bannon, already deeply engaged at Breitbart News, spent the past week in round-the-clock meetings with leaders of the conservative movement on how to pressure Ryan and McConnell to be more supportive of the president's agenda.
  • Breitbart has been gearing up to campaign to remove Ryan from the speakership. Bannon is activating.

Why it matters: The president is isolating himself on Trump Island, in the comfy warmth of his base. But if the island is bombed by Mueller, the base won't be able to save him. The president will need Congress, which'll be in no mood to rescue its tormentor.

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