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Trump got the perfect birthday present: complete capitulation by the GOP


Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Donald Trump got his 78th birthday present a day early — a handshake from his longtime bitter critic, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, encapsulating the Republican Party’s complete submission to its presumptive presidential nominee.

The twice-impeached 45th president and newly convicted criminal was back on Capitol Hill Thursday for the first time since his supporters beat up police officers and smashed their way through the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

A rendition of “Happy Birthday” from House Republicans contrasted with the cries from more than three years ago to “hang Mike Pence” from Trump’s mob as they acted on his plea to “fight like hell” after weeks of promoting false claims about election fraud. Keen to please their champion and create an optimistic omen for November, House members paid tribute to the ex-president with a bat and game ball they won after trouncing Democrats in the annual congressional baseball game Wednesday. There was a distinct impression of subordinates paying homage to a strongman leader.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, a former 2016 primary opponent now seen as a potential GOP vice presidential nominee, called it “getting the team back together” after GOP senators feted Trump a mere two weeks after he became the first ex-president to be convicted of a crime. Another 2016 foe of the ex-president, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who endured insults Trump flung at his father and his wife, stood to applaud his vanquisher.

But the most striking image from the day was a handshake between McConnell and the ex-president captured in a photo by Doug Mills of The New York Times that sums up an era. The veteran Kentucky senator has never hidden his disdain for Trump, though he has always sought to preserve his own power and didn’t take steps to convict him in Senate trials after his two impeachments. The dislike has been mutual, with the former president blasting McConnell as “the old crow” at rallies and making racist comments about McConnell’s wife, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

In January 2021, McConnell said, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president.” He said Trump was morally and practically responsible for the assault on his beloved Capitol.

On Thursday, after meeting Trump for the first time since that day of infamy, he lauded their “entirely positive” encounter, during which the former president clasped McConnell’s hand in both of his. It would strain credulity that McConnell has shed his private contempt for the ex-president. But he told reporters who asked him about their meeting: “I can’t think of anything to tell you that was negative.”

The exchange between McConnell and Trump was an apt emblem for a day that Trump choreographed to show a coming together in his party – despite the thousands of votes cast in GOP primaries for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for months after she suspended her campaign.

“There’s tremendous unity in the Republican Party,” the ex-president said. “We want to see borders. We want to see strong military. We want to see money not wasted all over the world.”

How Trump asserts power

Trump’s assertion of omnipotence over his party was an example of the power projection he adores, which often requires the subordination of supplicants. And it also showed what Republicans who want their own power are prepared to do to keep it. The pageant of adulation on Capitol Hill was also yet another reminder that there will be no price for Trump to pay in his party for an attempt to destroy democracy to stay in power. And it was likely a preview of the deference to Trump’s autocratic instincts and zeal for vengeance that America can expect from Republicans in Washington should he win back the White House – even from those in a branch of government that is supposed to constrain presidents.

Another of Trump’s possible vice-presidential picks, Ohio Sen J.D. Vance, was asked how some senior Republicans who had condemned Trump after January 6 could meet and applaud him now.

“No real Republican with any credibility in the party is still blaming him,” Vance, who had not yet been elected at the time, said, adding that some of Trump’s critics in the room were supportive. “I think it’s a good thing and the Republican Party is in a good place.”

Vance is not wrong. Almost every major Republican who stood up to Trump in 2021 is gone or on the way out of the door. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is retiring. Former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney was driven out of House leadership and then Congress for telling the truth about his election lies. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan harshly criticized Trump this week for breaking his oath of office to uphold the Constitution. But his comments on Fox News came amid a comfortable retirement, all his ambition long gone.

Lawmakers who stood alongside Trump on Thursday did not necessarily do it because they like him. His huge popularity in the grassroots GOP means that they know that they can say goodbye to their political futures if they choose not to. This is even the case when Trump’s deportment insults the normal codes of behavior expected of a presidential nominee.

Biden speaks of democracy abroad while Trump undermines it at home

Trump’s return to Washington came the day before he turned 78, the age at which President Joe Biden — whom his predecessor says is too old to serve — took office after beating him in the 2020 election. Their 2024 rematch is neck-and-neck, according to polls, with each seeking to make the contest a referendum on the other’s single term. Biden’s campaign was quick to try to exploit Trump’s return visit to a city he left scarred and traumatized by the Capitol riot, releasing a new campaign video that showed scenes of the assault.

“There’s nothing more sacred than our democracy, but Donald Trump’s ready to burn it all down,” a narrator said in the ad, which is airing in battleground states.

Biden, 81, was thousands of miles away from Washington when Trump showed up, participating in the G7 summit in Italy. It’s the second foreign trip in two weeks he is using an as allegory for a US presidential season he is trying to cast as a fight to save American democracy. Unveiling a series of new plans to boost Ukraine diplomatically, militarily and economically, the president recalled that the US and its allies had been repeatedly asked whether they’d stand firm for a country that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to wipe off the map.

“We will say it again, yes, again and again and again we’re going to stand with Ukraine,” Biden said, as he stood with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A flurry of initiatives to institutionalize Western support for Ukraine being unveiled at the summit are a clear effort to hedge against the possibility that Trump could return to power on January 20, 2025. The ex-president frequently cozied up to Putin while in office and has said he’d end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours — a feat that could only be achieved by locking in Russia’s territorial gains after its brutal invasion

Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton warned on Thursday that Biden could not guarantee that the 10-year pact that covers military training, intelligence cooperation and other areas that he signed with Zelensky on Thursday would last.

“I think it is illusory, though, for anyone to think Trump would be bound by it. If Trump is inaugurated at noon on January 20 next year, by about five after noon he could have dissolved this agreement in its entirety,” Bolton told Bianna Golodryga on CNN International.

If Trump gets elected and does walk away from Ukraine, he will complete the transformation of a Republican Party that once prided itself in standing up for democracy worldwide and that, under President Ronald Reagan, won the Cold War.

“You can’t bind a future president who doesn’t want to be bound,” Bolton said.

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