'He's on his own': Some Republicans begin to flee from Trump
NEW YORK — President Donald Trump's steadfast grip on Republicans in Washington is beginning to crumble, leaving him more politically isolated than at any other point in his turbulent administration.
After riling up a crowd that later staged a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol, Trump appears to have lost some of his strongest allies, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Two Cabinet members and at least a half dozen aides have resigned. A handful of congressional Republicans are openly considering whether to join a renewed push for impeachment.
One GOP senator who has split with Trump in the past called on him to resign and questioned whether she would stay in the party.
“I want him out,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told The Anchorage Daily News. "He has caused enough damage.”
The insurrection on the heels of a bruising election loss in Georgia accomplished what other low points in Trump's presidency did not: force Republicans to fundamentally reassess their relationship with a leader who has long abandoned tradition and decorum. The result could reshape the party, threatening the influence that Trump craves while creating a divide between those in Washington and activists in swaths of the country where the president is especially popular.
“At this point, I won’t defend him anymore,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for George W. Bush and a GOP strategist who voted for Trump. “I won't defend him for stirring the pot that incited the mob. He's on his own.”
When the week began, Trump was without question the most dominant political force in Republican politics and a 2024 kingmaker, if not the GOP’s next presidential nominee himself. On Friday, there was a growing sense that he was forever tarnished — and may be forced from office before his term expires in 12 days.
Absent a resignation, calls for a second impeachment on Capitol Hill grew louder on Friday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress would proceed with impeachment proceedings unless Trump leaves office “imminently and willingly.”
President-elect Joe Biden isn't putting his weight behind the effort yet, suggesting there's not enough time between now and his Jan. 20 inauguration to pursue impeachment or any other constitutional remedy.
“I am focused now, on us taking control as president and vice president, on the 20th and getting our agenda moving as quickly as we can,” Biden told reporters.
Trump still has supporters, especially among the many rank-and-file Republican voters and conservative activists beyond Washington.
On Thursday morning, there was loud applause and shouts of “We love you!” when Trump phoned into a breakfast meeting of the Republican National Committee in Florida.
“The vast majority of the committee is in full denial,” said Republican National Committee member Bill Palatucci, of New Jersey, who attended the breakfast. “They’re willing to condemn the violence, but without any reference to the president’s role in any of it."
The president insists he did nothing wrong. He continues to tell aides, privately at least, that the election was stolen from him. Republican officials in critical battleground states, his recently departed attorney general and a series of judges — including those appointed by Trump — have rejected those claims as meritless.
Trump had to be convinced to record the video released Thursday night in which he finally condemned the rioters and acknowledged his November defeat for the first time, while initially pushing back at the prospect of speaking negatively of “my people."
He ultimately agreed to record the video after White House counsel Pat Cipollone warned that he could face legal jeopardy for inciting the riot. Others, including chief of staff Mark Meadows and his daughter Ivanka Trump, urged Trump to send out a message that may quell the talk of his forcible ouster from office, either by impeachment or constitutional procedures outlined in the 25th Amendment.
And while Trump acknowledged in the video that a new administration would take over on Jan. 20, he also said Friday that he would not attend Biden’s inauguration. That makes Trump the first outgoing president since Andrew Johnson 152 years ago to skip the swearing-in of his successor.
Trump has no plans to disappear from the political debate once he leaves office, according to aides who believe he remains wildly popular among the Republican rank-and-file.
Lest there be any doubt, Trump’s false claims about voter fraud in his November loss resonated with hundreds of thousands of Republican voters in Georgia's Senate runoff elections this week. About 7 in 10 agreed with his false assertion that Biden was not the legitimately elected president, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,700 voters.
Leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz has had extensive conversations with grassroots voters and Republican officials about Trump's standing since the siege.
“The professionals are running away from a sinking ship, but his own supporters have not abandoned him, and they actually want him to fight on,” Luntz said. “He’s become the voice of God for tens of millions of people, and they will follow him to the ends of the earth and off the cliff.”
And because of the voters' continued loyalty, elected officials in deep red areas must remain loyal to the outgoing president as well, even if his own Cabinet does not. In the hours after this week's riot, 147 Republicans in Congress still voted to reject Biden's victory, including eight senators.
The dramatic split in the party is reflected within the divergent paths adopted by the early slate of 2024 Republican presidential prospects.
Sens. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, and Ted Cruz, of Texas, embraced Trump's calls to reject Biden's victory before and after the mob attack. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton resisted Trump's wishes, drawing an angry tweet from the president earlier in the week.
Such attacks didn't carry as much weight at the end of the week as they once did given Trump’s weakened political state. On Thursday, Cotton chastised Republican colleagues like Hawley and Cruz, who had given voters “false hope” that Trump's November loss could be overturned.
Nikki Haley, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, tried to toe the line as she condemned Trump's actions this week during a closed-door meeting with the Republican National Committee.
She lauded some of Trump’s accomplishments but predicted that, “His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history."
Meanwhile, there is no clear path for the Republican Party without Trump. Speaking to reporters on Friday, even Biden raised concerns about the health of the GOP.
“We need a Republican Party,” Biden said, noting that he spoke with Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, a leading Trump critic. “We need an opposition that’s principled and strong.”
Meanwhile, Trump has been plotting ways to retain his political clout once he moves from the White House to his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, later in the month.
Believing his supporters will stick with him no matter what, he has continued to discuss encouraging primary challenges against Republicans who haven't been sufficiently loyal to him. And he has hinted publicly and privately that he will likely challenge Biden in a 2024 rematch, though losing his powerful Twitter account — which was or using xenophobia to malign a country permanently shut down by the company on Friday — could complicate his efforts to rule the Republican party by fear.
Doug Deason, a Texas-based donor who served on the Trump campaign's finance committee, said this week's events have done nothing to shake his confidence in the Republican president.
“He has been the best President in my lifetime, including Reagan,” Deason said.
— Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Darlene Superville in Wilmington, Delaware contributed to this report.