If you've read about, or are old enough to remember living through, Watergate one of the interesting aspects of it is that even in less hyperpartisan times Republican support for Nixon was pretty firm. At least it was right up until it wasn't.
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It's not surprising that Democrats were howling for blood from the moment the scandal became a radar blip. Nixon was something akin to a monster in the eyes of liberals (which is pretty amusing in hindsight). Republicans, some of whom were quite a bit more liberal than any Republican you'll find in Congress today, took a more measured approach. Most weren't exactly wild about Nixon themselves. He was not a very easy man to get along with. But they expressed measured support for him throughout the scandal. Few of them gushed into the cameras of their burning love for Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon. Most, however, took a "Let's not have this wild-eyed talk of impeachment before we even see any evidence of wrongdoing."
Then the audio tapes came out and the indictments were handed down. Tape transcripts circulated widely. The Republicans around the Capitol didn't waste time looking for the exits.
enate Republican Leader Hugh Scott said the transcripts revealed a "deplorable, disgusting, shabby, and immoral" performance on the part of the President and his former aides. The House Republican Leader John Jacob Rhodes agreed with Scott, and Rhodes recommended that if Nixon's position continued to deteriorate, he "ought to consider resigning as a possible option."
There was a sense throughout that Republicans were trying to be supportive of Nixon without really sticking their necks out for him. Lots of "Wait until all the facts are in" stuff. No doubt they would have liked to rid themselves of the scandal sooner and more emphatically, but politicians have (not surprisingly) good instincts for these things.
You could sense the mental calculations taking place. A strong note of support for Nixon would have been a bet on the scandal getting better rather than worse. And Republicans in Congress at the time were pretty damn sure that getting worse was more likely. A legislator's #1 goal is reelection. They might care about helping Nixon and strengthening the Republican brand. When the chips are down, they care about protecting themselves a lot more.
Since it was assembled as opposition research we should assume that not every bit of this new dossier on Trump's Russian ties is true. But it's not all false, either. And you can bet that people in Washington with insider knowledge are feeling like an uncomfortably significant amount of it could be true.
The instinct of every Congressional Republican will be to downplay this, to defend him without sticking their necks out too far. But if you're a GOP in Congress right now you're also asking yourself two pertinent questions right now.
1. How much am I willing to risk to help this guy I don't like?
2. How likely is it that this is the worst news that's going to come out about Trump and the Russians?
Your answers right now are 1. Not much, since most of them didn't want this guy winning the nomination in the first place and 2. It depends on how much of an optimist one is.
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They hear the whispers. They know what potential exists for this to get worse. And they also don't believe or trust Trump any farther than they can throw him. They're not quite ready to throw him under the bus, but they have to be getting a little nervous. Not heading for the exits, but at least scoping out a path should the exit become necessary.
I don't think Republicans are going to defect en masse anytime soon, but it's clear that there is more information coming out and more is probably going to continue to come out in the next weeks and months. They will make gestures of support with sweaty palms and weak praise for now. The point of the Watergate analogy is that when the end comes and they abandon him, it is likely to happen with stunning quickness. No one can say with certainty right now that more damaging information is on the way. If you had to wager your political career on it, though, how confident could you be at this moment that we've already seen the worst of it?
Yeah. Me neither.