The stain on the wall

by Steven Roberts

Donald Trump’s chief of staff’s young aide Cassidy Hutchinson describes this White House scene: It’s December 2020. The president’s former attorney general, Bill Barr, has just given an interview denying that the election had been rigged. Trump is “extremely angry,” Hutchinson told the Congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection — so angry that he throws his lunch against the wall.

After hearing the crash of crockery, the young woman races to the president’s dining room. “There was ketchup dripping down the wall and a shattered porcelain plate on the floor,” she testified. So, she grabs a towel and starts wiping up the condiment that is staining the wall red.

That image sums up the most damning implication of Hutchinson’s stunning testimony. She portrayed a man whose combustible temper — fanned into flames by a lack of character and self-control — makes him emotionally and psychologically unfit to serve as president. And a growing number of Republicans are not only understanding that, but willing to say so publicly.

They don’t want to wipe any more of Trump’s ketchup off the wall.

The Washington Examiner, a reliably conservative organ that has long supported Trump, captured this trend in an editorial. Hutchinson’s words, wrote the Examiner’s editorial board, “ought to ring the death knell for former President Donald Trump’s political career. Trump is unfit to be anywhere near power ever again.”

The Congressional committee is spending a lot of time building a case that Trump is criminally liable for his actions on Jan. 6. The vice chair, Republican Liz Cheney, predicted on ABC that the panel could make “more than one criminal referral” to the Justice Department, and committee members are openly urging Attorney General Merrick Garland to indict the former president.

But focusing on Trump’s legal vulnerability puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Convincing a jury that the former president clearly conspired to subvert the orderly transition of power would be a difficult task. Two failed attempts to impeach Trump demonstrate that legal guilt and political culpability are very different standards.

The court of public opinion, not a court of law, is the better forum to judge Trump. Character flaws are a lot easier to prove than criminal acts. And a recent CNN poll found that fully half of all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents want their party to nominate someone other than Trump in 2024.

There are two separate but related reasons for their disenchantment, and the first is a rising concern that Trump would lose.

Voters tend to make decisions based more on personality than on policy. The most important question they ask of a candidate is this: Can their judgment be trusted? After all, presidents often wind up confronting issues that were seldom if ever discussed during their winning campaign. Not a word was said in 2016 about a disease called COVID-19, yet it consumed the last year of Trump’s term. Biden’s platform never anticipated the invasion of Ukraine or the surge of inflation.

Shrewd politicians understand the critical significance of the trust issue, and the damage done when a politician like Trump loses that trust. Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, said on “Meet the Press” that he would not back Trump in 2024, and his party must “learn the lesson (of) ‘Why did we lose in 2020?’ It was the comportment and the temperament.”

But within Republican ranks, a deeper fear than Trump losing is gaining momentum. It’s Trump winning.

A good example is Mick Mulvaney, the former Republican Congressman who served as Trump’s chief of staff. He used to defend the president, he said on CBS, but the hearings “certainly changed my mind,” and he is now convinced the president encouraged the violence on Jan. 6. “Count me among one of the Republicans who hopes he’s not the nominee at this point,” said Mulvaney.

Then there’s Asa Hutchinson (no relation to Cassidy), the outgoing governor of Arkansas. After listening to the Jan. 6 hearings, he said on CBS that Trump’s actions posed “a threat to our democracy. That was a threat to our institutions of government. And that’s not the behavior we want to see in a responsible president.”

“Republicans,” he added on Fox News, “need to do a lot of soul-searching as to what is the right thing here, and what is the right thing for our democracy in the future, and not simply adhere to the basic instincts of some of our base.”

As that soul-searching continues, the red stain on the White House wall cannot be wiped away. It’s indelible.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email: stevecokie@gmail.com.