This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.
Shotgun marriages are tricky.
They are, by their very nature, rooted in rapid efficiency. They are seldom elegant; no one really wants an altar designed by a Wegmans flower desk or a cheese board built by a Kroger clerk. Arranged marriages defined more territorial and familial borders in the Old World that anyone will freely admit and today’s political matchmaking is just as opportunistic. That doesn’t mean such partnerships are sustainable.
Just ask the Republican Establishment how well that elopement with Donald Trump is working out. Yes, the Republicans won in 2016 and cut taxes and secured a majority on the Supreme Court. But very seldom do ex-Presidents dominate so much congressional attention after they leave office. Washington prefers to focus on those who have actual power in the moment, and parties typically like to look ahead for its next class of leaders.
Yet, Congress is coming back next week with even more hearings about the failed insurrection launched by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, 2021, and the GOP is trying to calculate just how much longer it has to treat Trump as its infallible leader and father-knows-best partner. After all, as is the case with all races to the altar, divorce does remain an uncomfortable option for those willing to admit the error.
While Trump remains the patriarch of this FrankenBrady Bunch of a GOP, the ground beneath him has shifted over the last month. Trump is no longer the guaranteed 2024 frontrunner he once was. He will dominate the field—until he doesn’t—but that day seems far more plausible.
Inside Washington, there’s a not-so-quiet hum that maybe those claims of Trump being the most powerful Republican in the country are no longer true. That maybe his hold on the GOP is an arthritic one. And that his time at the head of the pack may be coming to an end—here’s where the plot twists—thanks to another unexpected shotgun marriage, this one between two principled Republicans and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, lawmakers set out to investigate how it happened and to prevent anything like it from happening again. Hopes of a 9/11 Commission-style probe fell apart in short order, and Congress instead settled on a select committee made of its own members. Then Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made the calculated risk of unveiling a Republican roster that included unabashed Trump apologists who were adherents to the Big Lie. As is permitted by the rules establishing the committee, Pelosi rejected the panelists she found objectionable, and McCarthy responded by yanking the entire slate.
Enter the unexpected arrivals to the altar: Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. The two true-dyed conservatives had found the Jan. 6 attacks abhorrent and agreed to serve on the panel investigating it. At blockbuster public hearings, they have often handled the questioning of witnesses with the most damning testimony, and they have shown zero signs that they are allowing fear for their own political futures to get in the way of finding the truth. In fact, they both appear to be viewing the assignment as a worthy trade: likely shepherding their exile from politics for at least a while in exchange for a possibly similar fate for Trump.
Polling to this point on the hearings is mixed, if not contradictory. While some Republicans are watching, Democrats are tuning in more closely, and the delta between the two groups has grown. The audience is mostly folks who approve of Biden’s performance as President and identify as Democrats at that. And the hearings are swaying few Republican minds about Trump’s culpability, according to some surveys.
However—and it’s a big one—almost 4-in-5 Americans now believe Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He might not have been responsible for the events of Jan. 6, but he definitely tried to change the election outcome. Significantly, about half of Republicans agree with that assessment.
More critically, 3-in-5 Americans think Trump should be charged with a crime over the riot. Even among Trump’s biggest stans, it’s tough to rationally nominate someone widely seen as meriting prosecution as a presidential nominee. Trump’s antics, as they’ve been documented by the Jan. 6 team, have become simply too much to ignore for these Republicans, many of whom were among those who held their noses and backed Trump in 2016 because at least he wasn’t Hillary Clinton.
But before NeverTrumpers think the fever is finally breaking, it’s necessary to remember that the laws of politics and even gravity don’t apply to Trump. He still won a plurality of white women in 2016, despite boorish behavior that included being caught on tape bragging about sexual assault without consequence. Scandals dogged him but didn’t drag him, no criticism dented his gold-plated bumpers, an ever-changing campaign hierarchy never cost him. He is a survivor, and his nuptials with the GOP may have more reconciliations than a telenovela.
Trump has never been mistaken as a model character. Even Mike Pence—his snap spouse of 2016—knew he had made an error in joining the ticket well before the one Election Day that went Trump’s way. When the Jan. 6 crowd went chasing Pence around Capitol Hill to escort him to a hangman’s noose, it was as clear as ever that he had accepted a toxic proposal. Like many others, Pence is looking at polling and the 2024 field, and plotting his own revenge.
So, in that sense, the Jan. 6 committee has already won. They won’t admit it; it would be bad politics. But they’ve won if the goal was to find information that disqualifies Trump from running. Or even thinking about it. It’s tough to imagine the many, many skeptics of the committee’s work ever picturing such an outcome. Yet here we are. The committee is still working but even what it has produced so far may be damning enough to stop Trump from ever again slashing open the MAGA movement’s artery of grievance and violence.
What’s pretty clear at this point is that few establishment-minded Republicans still fear Trump, even if he remains the most powerful member of the party. In that sense, Trump’s shotgun marriage to the party may have run its course. The shadow campaign to be the party’s next spouse is already underway. So, too, might have Washington watched succeed the Jan. 6-themed wedding between the principled Republicans and Pelosi. Sometimes, you just have to root for those crazy kids and their ill-considered love.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.
- Zero-COVID Protests in China Have Rattled Global Markets
- Column: Diversity Initiatives Are Failing the U.S. Muslim Community
- Why European Countries Are Giving Teens Free Money To Spend on Books, Music, and Theater
- Republican Skepticism of Trump Has Never Been Higher
- Column: The U.S. Prison System Doesn't Value True Justice
- How Green Is the Qatar World Cup’s Outdoor AC?
- 16 Funny and Whimsical White Elephant Gifts Under $25
- The 5 Best New TV Shows Our Critic Watched in November 2022