Trump photo op, talk of military force amp up GOP challenge

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President Donald Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after he visited outside St. John's Church across from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Part of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON – The mumbling and dodging this week by Republicans came straight from the GOP playbook that helped the party endure President Donald Trump’s cringe-inducing choices.

But when Trump was caught bragging of sexual assault and seeking political help from Ukraine, the country was relatively comfortable. Now, the nation is struggling with crises that affect every single American: a pandemic with more than 100,000 dead. Forty million out of work. The police asphyxiation of George Floyd and the resulting protests, race riots and suppression by the state.

America is on edge. Elections loom, including Trump's. And the agony of Republicans over defending the president has never been more acute or on display.

“I’m late for lunch,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told reporters Tuesday when asked whether Trump's use of force against peaceful protesters was the right thing to do.

“Didn't really see it,” said staunch Trump ally Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is retiring, said, “I don’t have any comment on that.”

The phenomenon is as old as Trump's bid for president, and works like this: Trump does something that breaks norms. Republicans stand with him on policy when they can, or at least don't defy him. He says he's a victim of “haters” like Democrats and the media. Most in the GOP avoid directly criticizing him, even when they find his conduct unhelpful or offensive to their values and goals.

Even now, as they squirm about the president's suggestion of using the military to enforce the law, most Republicans aren't breaking with Trump. Staying mum is a popular choice. But the crises shaking the United States are forcing members of the president's party to work harder to dodge questions about when, and how long, to stand with him.