How Do Republicans Feel About The Latest Findings In The Russia Probe?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Two of President Donald Trump's former top aides, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, are looking at years in federal prison. Revelations out Friday from Robert Mueller's team could be especially damning for the president and his team, those filings laying out how Michael Cohen made illegal campaign payments during the 2016 election allegedly at the request of Donald Trump. For his part, the president responded by tweeting, quote, "totally clears the president," which, of course, it does not.
With increasing pressure on the president himself, how are Republicans navigating this moment? We're going to ask Jonah Goldberg, conservative commentator, senior editor of National Review. Jonah, good morning.
JONAH GOLDBERG: It's great to be here.
MARTIN: So I want to start by listening to a little bit of what Senator Marco Rubio had to say. Yesterday he was on CNN's "State Of The Union" talking about the recent Mueller filings. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")
MARCO RUBIO: If someone has violated the law, the application of the law should be applied to them like any other citizen in this country. And obviously if you're in a position of great authority like the presidency, that would be the case. I don't know if it's going to reach that point or not. We have to wait and see.
MARTIN: Wait and see - you agree?
GOLDBERG: To a certain extent, yes, wait and see. Certainly I think we need to know more. We need to wait for the Mueller report. There are all sorts of things we need to wait for. What I have to say - and I've sort of been consistent on this for 20 years since the Clinton impeachment stuff.
What bothers me is that we've now sort of reduced everything to legalisms, that - you know, as a conservative, the idea that we now pretty much know the president of the United States paid off - had his lawyer or his fixer pay off a porn star and a Playboy model in the last moments of the campaign to keep the American public from knowing about his affair - that used to be the kind of thing you would imagine a lot of conservatives being bothered by.
And instead we fall back in these legalisms that says, well, was it legal? You know, campaign finance, you know, laws, they're - they rarely get seriously criminally enforced. Barack Obama had criminal - had had campaign finance law violations, too, which is true. It sort of fuels this sort of legalistic whataboutism where you fall out of actual - anything like real moral condemnation for anything. And that bothers me.
MARTIN: So what do you think Republicans should doing in - should be doing in this moment then?
GOLDBERG: Well, it's very hard to put all of that toothpaste back into the tube. You can't at this point all of a sudden discover that you morally disapprove of behavior that everybody has rationalized away. I do think going forward, what you're going to see is you're going to see more and more distance between at least some Republicans, some prominent national Republicans, and the White House.
The White House is gearing up to go to the mattresses, to borrow a "Godfather" phrase. And you saw this week just the way Republicans at least want to get on record condemning the Khashoggi murder in ways that the White House wasn't on board with. I think we're going to see more and more space between them. But the real proof will be in the pudding when the Democrats truly take hold of the House and they start all of their investigations. And that is just going to be a wild ride.
MARTIN: Although they have suggested at this point that this particular issue at least right now doesn't meet the bar for starting impeachment proceedings.
GOLDBERG: I think they're saying that in part because they were - they're hoping for better ammo. But there is a sense in which - look; we live in a moment of very high levels of motivated reasoning. The base of the Democratic Party wants impeachment. They crave impeachment. They hunger for it. They're sort of like werewolves. At the full moon, they must feed. And if they must impeach over this stuff, they may in fact impeach over this stuff.
MARTIN: I mean, but really, Jonah, do all of them though? Because this - as you well know, thinking about the Clinton case, this could just reinforce Trump's popularity because the Senate is never going to impeach him.
GOLDBERG: No, I agree. I think politically it would be a bad idea. It was a bad idea for the Republicans to do it politically, but they sort of had to follow through on their own, you know, line of reasoning and consistency. The - one of the fun sort of scenarios is to imagine - let's say more comes out from the Mueller probe, like, meaty stuff that does warrant, at least in the eyes of some people, impeachment. And then you've got all of these Democrats running for 2020. Do they actually want to see Donald Trump removed and a healthier, more capable Mike Pence to run against? I don't know. I mean, it's sort of science fiction, but not that far from reality either.
MARTIN: John Kelly - I want to ask you about this. John Kelly's leaving as White House chief of staff the end of the year. This had long been rumored to be coming. It's finally happening. Who's going to replace him?
GOLDBERG: You know, I don't know. If I had to bet, it's going to be Mick Mulvaney, who already has, I don't know, like, 14,000 jobs in the White House, so what's one more?
MARTIN: Currently I guess the top one, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
GOLDBERG: Right. I find rumors that that the Treasury secretary, Mnuchin, wants to do it very strange. I would...
MARTIN: Let's acknowledge this is a very difficult job. Do many people want this job?
GOLDBERG: Very few people who are qualified for the job want the job. Let's put it that way. It's also worth remembering that he has been sort of - Kelly has been kind of one of these circuit breakers. He and Secretary of Defense Mattis - they had an agreement early on that one of them would always stay in the country so that if the president - they would never travel abroad at the same time so that if the president ordered something scary, one of them would be able to stop it. And I think that it's doubtful the president is looking for somebody to play that role again.
MARTIN: All right, Jonah Goldberg of National Review - Jonah, thanks as always.
GOLDBERG: Great to be here, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.