As the week begins, the White House remains consumed with the handling of a former senior staffer accused of beating two ex-wives. President Trump’s defense of the staffer only makes the path more difficult for Republicans facing midterm elections this year.
In the days before White House staff secretary Rob Porter left the White House, Republicans were cautiously feeling better about where they stood.
Trump’s approval ratings were ticking up. Republicans were trumpeting their tax reform law. The partisan congressional fights over health care and immigration had subsided. And there was a deal in the works to prevent the government from shutting down.
Then the political conversation shifted suddenly back to a topic that Republicans can’t win: a president of the United States once again defending a man accused of misconduct against women in the #MeToo era.
For a moment it looked like the fallout of the Porter accusations would only involve finger-pointing among White House staff. Porter’s ex-wives both said they had told the FBI that he had physically abused them, including providing pictures as proof. A protection order his second wife had taken out against him was a public record. At some point, people inside the White House were notified.
Criticism immediately centered on White House chief of staff John Kelly, who apparently had known about Porter’s past and defended him anyway. Later, some questioned whether White House counsel Don McGahn had known about Porter even earlier and didn’t say or do enough to remove him.
But those internal fights were nothing compared with Trump’s statement Friday that he wished Porter well, and his tweet Saturday: “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”
With those two actions, Trump added Porter to the list of men accused of misconduct against women whom he has publicly defended, including Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Corey Lewandowski, and former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.
Trump supporters had already been worried about the response from the #MeToo movement.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has given two interviews recently, saying that the effect of #MeToo on the 2018 elections will be very real because of Trump.
“I think it’s going to unfold like the Tea Party, only bigger,” Bannon told Bloomberg News. “It’s not ‘Me Too.’ It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s an anti-patriarchy movement. Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real.”
And in the newly released paperback version of a Bannon biography he said, “You watch. The time has come. Women are gonna take charge of society. And they couldn’t juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He is the patriarch.”
Indeed, there are already a record number of women who are running for major office in 2018, many of whom say they were inspired by post-inauguration women’s marches and the #MeToo movement. Money has flooded into the coffers of candidates who make the issue a central tenet of their campaigns.
Republicans cannot win by defending Trump. Their best hope is that voters forget his comments when the elections are held nine months from now and that the main topic on their minds will be the benefits they’re getting from a robust economy.
But for that to happen, they need Trump to stop changing the topic.James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp