The real message of the memo released last week by Rep. Devin Nunes assailing the FBI and Department of Justice is that Donald Trump is changing the Republican Party far more than it is changing him.
The memo from Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, failed to deliver revelations sufficient to reshape the debate over special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. The most telling aspect of the document was that it was compiled and released at all -- to the delight of Trump and over the heated opposition of the FBI and other federal law enforcement and intelligence officials.
That choice from Nunes and other Republicans on the intelligence committee, with support from Speaker Paul Ryan, captured the shifting balance in the GOP's relationship with its tempestuous President.
Trump has helped Republicans achieve long-standing goals of cutting taxes, regulation and spending, and confirming onto the federal courts deeply conservative judges. It was such accomplishments that led Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week to declare, "2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I've been here. The best year on all fronts."
But with the Nunes memo, the price of those policy gains has become more apparent. Rather than restraining his belligerent instincts, Trump in office has demonstrated even more determination than as a candidate to shatter both the institutional and personal norms of presidential behavior. And he has shown an unstinting willingness to attack any institution -- including the Republican-controlled Congress -- that he believes poses a threat to him at any point.
Congressional Republicans who once hoped to tame Trump's behavior have found instead that he has steadily broken their will to resist it. As a result, Republicans have maneuvered themselves into positions that few could have imagined two years ago: impeding a serious investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, defending or downplaying Trump language that inflames racial tensions, excusing his efforts to demand personal loyalty from top law enforcement officials, and now openly attacking federal law enforcement agencies through the Nunes memo alleging senior officials systematically abused the process for obtaining surveillance on former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Even the collective decision by Congressional Republicans -- and their evangelical Christian allies -- to shrug off the detailed report from the Wall Street Journal that Trump aides established a shell company just before the 2016 election to pay a porn star who claimed to have had an affair with him measures the extraordinary distance the party has traveled.
The cumulative impact of these choices may be to more deeply fuse the GOP's political identity with Trump's. The idea that the Republican Congress would impose any meaningful restraint on Trump had already significantly eroded by the time of the Nunes memo. But the release of the memo, over the intense opposition of the FBI and DOJ, shifted the House GOP from diluting oversight of Trump to actively cooperating in his efforts to weaken the federal law enforcement officials he believes could threaten him.
Since Trump's emergence, the party, broadly speaking, has followed a cycle from openly criticizing his excesses, to trying to look away from them while focusing on their policy agenda, to defending or, as in the Nunes case, actively supporting his actions.
Elements of that trajectory are evident in the responses to Trump of primary rivals such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. But no one exemplifies that evolution more than Paul Ryan.
Ryan describes himself as a disciple of the late Jack Kemp, a former professional football star turned Republican House Member who passionately advocated for a racially inclusive conservatism. Reflecting that tradition, Ryan often bridled against Trump's behavior during the 2016 campaign.
Just before the 2016 South Carolina primary, Ryan participated in a forum there sponsored by the Jack Kemp Foundation that implicitly rebuked Trump's racial polarization. When Trump in June 2016 accused federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel of bias against him because of his Mexican-American heritage, Ryan denounced it as a "textbook definition of a racist comment." After the release that October of the "Access Hollywood" video in which Trump bragged of sexual assault, Ryan told House Republicans in a conference call that he would no longer defend Trump and would focus instead on protecting the House GOP majority.
Even on Election Day, after the Republican National Committee incorrectly informed him it expected Trump to lose, Ryan prepared a speech renouncing Trump's racially polarizing agenda as a dead end for the GOP, according to the detailed reporting of Tim Alberta in Politico.
But when Trump won, Ryan stuffed his criticism back into his jacket pocket, where it has disappeared deeper ever since. Ryan has managed little more than under-his-breath mumbling about even Trump's most racially confrontational comments as President. After Trump's insistence that the Charlottesville riots included "very fine people" on both sides, Ryan avoided directly criticizing him. When the President reportedly described African nations as "shithole countries" and argued the US needed more immigrants from virtually all-white Norway, Ryan described the remarks only as "very unfortunate, unhelpful."
By sanctioning the release of the Nunes memo over the widespread opposition from federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, Ryan took another long step in his evolution from independent Trump critic to inveterate defender. Though Ryan publicly insisted the memo's release was not intended to discredit the FBI or special counsel Mueller's investigation, Trump himself immediately undermined those claims by tweeting that he believed the memo did exactly that.
Trump's own words instantly left the speaker looking either highly na-ve or deeply disingenuous. That moment seemed to crystallize Ryan's transformation from a disciple of Jack Kemp to a blocking back for Donald Trump.
While advancing many of the long-held policy goals of Congressional conservatives like Ryan, Trump is requiring them not only to accept his personal excesses but also his turn toward insular nationalism on foreign alliances, trade and immigration. Although pressure from the business community, agricultural interests and many Congressional Republicans have kept Trump from fully renouncing the North American Free Trade Agreement, he has already steered the party toward a more confrontational trade agenda on several fronts, such as abandoning participation in the pan-Asian trade deal that former President Obama negotiated. And in the negotiations over resolving the fate of hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the US illegally by their parents, Trump has identified the GOP with demands not only for tougher steps against undocumented immigration but also for the largest reduction in legal immigration since the 1920s.
In all of these ways, the GOP is adapting to Trump much more than he is shifting to accommodate them. By falling into harness behind Trump, McConnell and Ryan have made it more difficult for Republican candidate anywhere to establish separation from him. They have systematically provided Democrats ammunition to argue to voters ambivalent, or worse, about Trump that Congress will never impose any meaningful constraints on him so long as Republicans control the majority.
That carries an obvious political risk for 2018 when Trump's approval rating remains stuck at around 40% in most surveys and roughly half of all Americans in polls say they strongly disapprove of his performance.
Still, with improving attitudes toward the economy and the Republican tax bill providing a tailwind, both Trump's approval rating and the GOP position in polls measuring preferences for the 2018 election have edged up lately. That has stirred Republican hopes that they may avoid the worst outcome this fall.
Yet even if the GOP dodges sweeping near-term losses, its identification with Trump threatens to narrow its long-term reach, both demographically and geographically. Not only does Trump face consistently poor numbers with the Millennial Generation on virtually every measure of his personal behavior and values, but a recent national survey by NBC and the GenForward project of the University of Chicago found that perception was spilling over Trump's party at large. Among that burgeoning generation 86% of African-Americans, 80% of Asian-Americans, 79% of Latinos and even 64% of whites, said the GOP itself did not care about people like them. Meanwhile, Trump's demands for large reductions in legal immigration tied to family reunification threaten to further weaken the GOP's position among the rapidly growing Asian-American and Hispanic population in all age groups.
Similarly even if Republicans this fall hold enough blue-collar and non-urban areas to retain a fighting chance of defending their House majority, Trump's troubles with college-educated white voters means the party seems guaranteed to lose more ground in the information-age, white collar suburbs around major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia and Minneapolis -- and possibly Atlanta, Houston and Dallas as well.
That means that under Trump the GOP is likely to become further isolated from the communities that are generating most of the US's growth in jobs and economic output and virtually all of its population increase: as the Brookings Institution's Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton have calculated, just the 53 largest metro areas (with population of one million or more) account for more than 96% of the nation's population growth since 2014. As veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres has told me, under Trump Republicans are trading "fast growing, large, better-educated counties for slow growing, smaller less well-educated counties. And it was a trade that worked well for Trump, barely, in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, but it's hardly a formula for long-term success."
Nunes' memo isn't likely to change many opinions about the validity of Mueller's investigation. But it may stand as a milestone in Trump doing what he knows best: stamping his brand onto the Republican Party