When it comes to Donald Trump, Republican gatekeeping has been somewhat lacking. Despite sexual assault allegations, racist rhetoric that made party members squirm, and a clear reluctance to accept him as their candidate, GOP party members have more or less turned a blind eye to or defended the president from his many controversies in order to push their own agenda through his support. A pessimist, who to be fair likely became one due to the last two-and-a-half years, may be inclined to cast doubt on the possibility that the recently released Mueller Report will result in any sizable Republican gatekeeping. Republican party members’ history, however, suggests otherwise. By looking at attempts at gatekeeping by Republican party members both before and after the 2016 election, we see signs of Republican gatekeeping that offer circumstances that could prove costly to Trump’s support from the party in the coming months.
Key to this idea is recognizing that Republicans have not supported Trump through all of his controversies. Prior to his election in 2016, it was not uncommon for prominent Republicans to walk back previous endorsements or at the very least condemn Trump’s actions in spite of his popularity with their voter base. Prominent examples include Mitt Romney’s 2016 anti-Trump speech and when the late John McCain retracted his endorsement. It is worth pointing out these two instances occurred at key moments in Trump’s campaign where a loss of support from prominent party members could prove damaging to Trump’s support from the rest of the party. Romney gave his speech when the Republican primaries were in full swing and a condemnation from a well-known Republican could prove costly. McCain’s retraction of support, made in response to the infamous Access Hollywood tape, occurred a mere month before Election Day. Of course, neither of these instances cost Trump the nomination or the White House, but they represent key moments where Republican leaders were willing to walk back support for their party’s candidate if tacit approval harmed the party’s reputation.
Even after the election, Republican congressmen have not always been inclined to support Trump during particularly controversial moments. Last July several prominent leaders quickly and loudly condemned Trump’s remarks claiming Putin’s innocence in Russian election interfering, including ones who had otherwise supported Trump: even Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell cautiously refuted Trump’s stance against the American intelligence community’s findings. Despite ostensibly supporting Trump’s immigration policies, Republican lawmakers were quick to condemn his “shithole countries” remarks. Again, neither of these instances nor many other instances of Republican rebukes condemning him resulted in a full-on party rejection, but they show that members of the party are willing to pull back their support when something he does is particularly damaging to their reputation, even when he’s president.
Where does the Mueller report fit into this? Well, I want to acknowledge that in the aftermath of its release the Trump administration and some of his more prominent supporters have doubled down that it absolves him of any blame, and there’s clear signs most of the party will continue to support him. But there are also signs of fractures within the party, the key point being Mitt Romney’s statements that condemn the Trump administration’s behavior regardless of Trump not getting indicted. Mitch McConnell has also avoided taking a strong stance about what the report means for Trump and the party, despite some of his colleague’s remarks. Now, some might argue that the Mueller Report will be just another controversy the Trump administration and the GOP will brush off after a few weeks. But it is clear from the administration’s quick attempts to characterize it as an exoneration (which it is not) and McConnell’s reluctance to agree represent a clear sign that the Report is at the very least damaging for the president.
Will the Mueller Report will result in the entire GOP rebuking Trump and supporting impeachment or at the very least not having him as the 2020 nominee? Probably not. But the response to its release, even in its redacted form, combined with previous Republican gatekeeping attempts suggests it is not something we or the Trump administration should just ignore. Despite their brushing off attempts, it offers a very damaging view of the president, one that the GOP knows is difficult to back. It remains to be seen if in the next year and a half further findings could result in a full party revolt. But Republicans are willing to protect the party’s reputation over the president, and if he threatens the Republican agenda it seems unlikely he will have their support for much longer.