The Great Washington Meltdown of 2024 Has Begun

The end, when it came, was painful to watch. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans voted en masse to disavow a bipartisan deal on foreign aid and the border that they themselves had spent months demanding. Collateral damage could not have been higher—the credibility of the United States as an ally and partner, the credibility of the Republicans’ own leader. As for winners, there were few aside from Donald Trump, who had demanded that the G.O.P. senators ditch the deal, even at the cost of their own dignity. In the meantime, Ukraine’s military is already running out of ammunition in its existential fight against Russia—a direct result of Congress’s refusal to deliver billions of dollars in military assistance that President Biden asked for months ago.

“What is the point of being a senator if you let Donald Trump make all of the decisions for you?” Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington State who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, asked her colleagues on the floor of the chamber. Plenty of other members weighed in on the mess, but Murray’s comment seemed to capture the moment. For the foreseeable future, it’s probably best to consider Trump not only the Republican Party’s putative nominee for President but its de-facto congressional boss as well.

With Trump’s opposition to passing anything that might stop him from using the border issue as a club to wield against Biden, only four Republicans voted to advance the border deal that their party had insisted on as the price for releasing aid to Ukraine. One of them was James Lankford, the conservative Oklahoman who had been deputized by his party to lead the negotiations. It is no coincidence that joining him in defense of the bill were three Republicans who consistently stood against Trump during his Presidency—Susan Collins, of Maine, Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, and Mitt Romney, of Utah. They are united not by ideology so much as by a refusal to go along with the cult of personality that has overtaken the rest of their colleagues.

In the end, even the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, voted to sink the deal—which seemed to signal, as loudly as a single vote can, that the longest-serving party leader in Senate history is not likely to serve much longer in that post. It’s lonely out there when even your leader abandons you. Lankford, as unlikely a conservative apostate as one could imagine, likened his situation to that of a guy standing by himself in an open field during a thunderstorm—and waving a metal stick at the angry heavens. No matter how familiar that sight is, eight years into the Trump takeover of the Republican Party, it’s still hard to watch the cringe-inducing spectacle of Trump humiliating so many grown men.

The rest of the world is watching this shit show, too. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, on the eve of a short visit to Washington that seems destined to confirm for Europeans that the U.S. right now is every bit as dysfunctional as it looks, the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, seemed to be practically pleading with the paper’s conservative audience: stand with Ukraine, don’t hand Russian President Vladimir Putin the win. The consequences, he warned, would be “a world even more unstable, threatening and unpredictable than it was during the Cold War.” The Prime Minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, was even more blunt as he took the extraordinary step of publicly bashing the G.O.P. members who chose Trump over Ukraine this week. “Dear Republican Senators of America,” he wrote on social media on Thursday. “Ronald Reagan, who helped millions of us to win back our freedom and independence, must be turning in his grave today. Shame on you.” Sometimes, the farther away you are, the clearer the view.

The first order of business when the Senate reconvened at noon on Thursday was another vote to advance the ninety-five-billion-dollar foreign-aid bill, stripped of its now-repudiated border provisions. An effort to do so had failed by just two votes on Wednesday; this time, more than enough Republicans switched their votes and the measure passed, 67–32. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called it “a good first step,” and promised that the Senate would not stop working until it was done. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, sent a grateful message to the Senate for at least proceeding to the debate that should have begun when Biden sent the bill up to Congress in October. “This is a bad day for Putin, and a good day for democracies,” he wrote on X.

The bill’s fate in the House, however, remains unclear. Will Speaker Mike Johnson, who is even more beholden to Trump than his Senate colleagues, allow it to come up for a vote at all?

The current meltdown in Washington is the result of many things. Foremost among them, it seems to me, is a crisis of leadership. McConnell, who is eighty-one and visibly diminished since an accident last year, has been put on notice by the growing faction of Trump-allied rebels within his conference. They may not be able to topple him yet, but they are no longer afraid to openly call for his ouster. In Thursday’s vote to move ahead with the foreign-aid spending bill, while McConnell and sixteen other Republicans voted yes, thirty-one Republicans—two-thirds of the G.O.P. conference—voted no. Trump has no bigger remaining enemy within his party than McConnell; he will do whatever he can to undermine him.

In the House, Johnson’s Speakership is barely a hundred days old, and already flagging. On Tuesday, he suffered the twin embarrassment of losing two major votes in quick succession—including a tie vote dooming, at least temporarily, the effort to impeach Biden’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, on the ground that he has failed to properly enforce laws to keep the southern border from being overrun by migrants. A more experienced legislative leader would never have put the measure to a floor vote without knowing in advance he had the numbers to pass it. Johnson already has the smallest majority of any modern Speaker, and he could lose another seat in a special election next week to replace the ejected fabulist, George Santos. The Party’s restive far-right flank has already insured that this is basically an ungovernable House. One bad word from Trump and it’s hard to see how Johnson survives.

And then there are the Democrats, going into an election year with a deeply unpopular eighty-one-year-old incumbent who is—at best—tied with Trump in the polls and hardly in a position to muscle important pieces of legislation through a badly divided Congress. Biden’s biggest problem is one he can do nothing about—his advancing age—and Republicans will do anything they can to seize on evidence of his infirmity and inability to do the job.

On Thursday afternoon, that case received an unexpected boost from an unlikely source, the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department to look into Biden’s possession of classified documents at his home and office after he left the Vice-Presidency, in 2017. Unlike Trump, now facing criminal charges for taking hundreds of secret documents with him after leaving office, Biden will not face prosecution, according to the report from the counsel, the attorney Robert Hur. But the scathing document has sections that could have been written by the Republican National Committee, most notably one in which Hur concludes that he could not put the trial before a jury in part because Biden came across to investigators as so diminished, a “well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.” Biden even struggled to remember the date of his own son Beau’s death, or when his Vice-Presidential term had ended.

This may be enough to help one escape indictment. But for a President already facing serious—and legitimate—questions about his capacity to do one of the toughest jobs in the world for another four years, it’s brutal. The strongest men in America are, these days, looking awfully weak. ♦

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