As I listened yesterday to Pennsylvania congressman Ryan Costello – the latest House Republican to quit his seat and flee the Trump freak show – I was reminded of a phrase that Richard Nixon’s advisers coined during the Watergate scandal. They acknowledged that things were screwed up, but they resisted taking the blame. They called this spin “the modified limited hangout route.”
Costello went that route on MSNBC. On the one hand, he took advantage of his newfound liberation and denounced Trump for his multiplicity of character sins; on the other hand, he stalwartly refused to acknowledge his own culpability – and that of his spineless Republican brethren – in saddling us with Trump in the first place. The modified limited hangout route is all about coming clean…with caveats.
Between now and November, a lot of bailing Republicans (in this election cycle, a record number of retirements) will likely try to replicate Costello’s tortured balancing act. Here’s my transcript:
Katy Tur: “Should Donald Trump’s conduct be surprising? It was very clear how he conducted himself during the campaign…You supported Donald Trump in his bid for the White House, despite everything you saw in 2016. Do you regret that now?”
Costello (with a big sigh.) “Boy, that’s a good question. The answer is, look, I supported the tax bill. I think it’s good policy. If you look at the labor participation rate, it’s much improved. Low unemployment, the stock market, while volatile the last few weeks, is still strong, money is being returned to middle- and lower-income Americans, capital is being deployed to create more jobs. There’s a good story to tell. There is. This president has signed into law some legislation that I fully support, much in the way of regulatory reform measures.
“But I will be the first person to tell you that I have little kids, and I don’t want them to ask me what Stormy Daniels does for a living. I don’t like to hear a lot of the things I hear when we tweet the way that we tweet. I don’t like it. When the question was asked during the presidential race, if someone had asked me, ‘Is he a role model?’ I would’ve said no. Nobody asked me that. And I think a lot of voters support a lot of the policies, but we cannot discount the fact that a lot of Americans legitimately look at any president of the United States and say, ‘He or she should be a role model.’
“I disagreed with a lot of President Obama’s policies, there are some I agreed with but disagreed with many of them, but he was a good role model, he conducted himself in an appropriate way. I think even a lot of Democrats look back at (George W. Bush) and say, ‘He’s a decent man, he had high moral character.’ And that matters for a lot of reasons. And this (Trump) stuff is not good for our country, it’s not good for our culture. We saw a number of demonstrations over the weekend, young people are becoming more and more politically engaged. We want them to be engaged on issues, but you can’t ignore the character questions.”
Tur (mindful that Costello never answered her original question): “So let me ask you one more time. Do you regret your vote in 2016?”
Costello: “No. Because the choice was President Trump or then-Secretary Clinton…I hope he governs, and gets rid of some of the tweeting and all that sort of stuff, because it’s not good for him from a governing perspective.”
Tur: “I don’t think he’s going to get rid of the tweeting. Let’s be honest, congressman. If he was going to get rid of the tweeting and change his conduct, it would’ve happened by now.”
Costello: “I agree with you, I’m trying to be honest, but what I’ll also say to you is, we have another two and a half years oh him as president and he’d do for himself and Republicans in Congress much much better if he’d focus on governing and leave this other stuff off to the side. And when I voted for him I had a feeling that he’d surround himself with good people, as the executive that he is, and he’d let them run things and that some of the soap-opera stuff of the campaign would fall by the wayside. I legitimately felt that way.”
You can read those remarks and virtually smell the reek of self-delusion. Costello and the other bailing Republicans – who are suddenly so upset about Trump’s despicable character – somehow convinced themselves, back when there was still time to put country over party, that a serially sleazy candidate would magically transform himself into a governing Pericles. Costello says he “legitimately” felt that way, despite all the evidence, in human nature, that 70-year-olds tend to sustain their life behavior.
Character is destiny. And I suspect that, deep down, Republicans like Costello knew darn well that Trump would never change – but so what, he’ll sign a tax cut bill! (Which, despite Costello’s lavish praise, is barely making a dent in the average voter’s income.) Retroactive candor about Trump’s character simply doesn’t cut it. Republicans knew who they were bedding with, but, as the old saying goes, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. And now we’re all scratching.