Republicans demand a ransom: Defund the prosecution of Donald Trump or else

A government shutdown over something that will make no difference is a perfect illustration of the Republican Party

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 30, 2023 9:24AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump (2L) walks next to US House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) after a meeting at the US Capitol with the House Republican Conference in Washington, DC on June 19, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (2L) walks next to US House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) after a meeting at the US Capitol with the House Republican Conference in Washington, DC on June 19, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump's legal problems just got very real.

We now have trial dates being set, jockeying among various co-defendants and even Trump's former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, taking the stand to essentially say he was only following orders. It now appears certain that one way or the other, Trump will be facing a jury before the 2024 election. And for all his blustering about how every indictment makes him more popular, he wants his Republican supporters to do something about it.

My colleague Amanda Marcotte has a full rundown of the Republican hysteria around the threat to their Dear Leader. The party is in such disarray that it's difficult to anticipate how successful they might be at their various gambits to interfere in the 2024 elections around the country. But the outlines of what the MAGA caucus in the House of Representatives plans to do in Washington are clear. They want to impeach Joe Biden, as we all predicted the moment they took the majority in 2022, and flood the zone with investigations. And they want to hold the government hostage by shutting down the government. If all goes well, they might even wreck the economy in the process.

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Trump has exhorted them on his social media platform Truth Social for months to put a stop to what the GOP refers to as the "weaponization" of the Department of Justice. And he's taken it to the campaign trail as well. At a Pennsylvania rally this summer, Trump excoriated congressional Republicans whom he believes have not been fighting for him hard enough:

The Republicans are very high class. You've got to get a little bit lower class...Any Republican that doesn't act on Democrat fraud should be immediately primaried and get out — out! They have to play tough and ... if they're not willing to do it, we got a lot of good, tough Republicans around ... and they're going to get my endorsement every single time.

The problem is that there isn't a whole lot his loyal House majority can do to help him. They are running investigations as fast as they can think of them. Aside from all the bogus Hunter Biden nonsense and the absurd impending impeachment inquiry against Joe Biden, they're now set upon investigating the Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg and Fulton County prosecutor Fanni Willis with the supposed intention of defunding them for their alleged misconduct. They don't seem to realize that these are local and state offices and are hardly dependent upon whatever small amounts of money the federal government might provide. It does make for a good Truth Social post though.

Still, Republicans do have one card up their sleeves that it looks like they are going to play quite soon. You'll recall that the House Freedom Caucus was quite bent out of shape last spring when Kevin McCarthy made a deal with the Democrats to raise the debt ceiling. They even staged a little hissy fit soon afterward blocking a vote on the floor and putting the House into gridlock for a week. They now plan to flex their muscles over the appropriations bills with a renewed threat of a government shutdown. And if the putative leader of their majority, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, doesn't like it, they are pretty much on record saying that they are ready to pull the plug on his speakership. (All it would take is one member to call to vacate the chair and it will only take four GOP votes against him to put an end to his reign.)

During this summer's recess, the rebels, led by former Sen. Ted Cruz's chief of staff, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, the battle lines have been drawn. (Roy was working for Cruz back in 2013 when he helped the House Tea Party caucus lead that disastrous government shutdown.) The Freedom Caucus released a statement making it clear that they will oppose any short-term funding bill that doesn't meet their demands:

"In the eventuality that Congress must consider a short-term extension of government funding through a Continuing Resolution, we refuse to support any such measure that continues Democrats' bloated COVID-era spending and simultaneously fails to force the Biden Administration to follow the law and fulfill its most basic responsibilities,"

They are hand-waving about cuts, including Ukraine military funding and "woke" Pentagon spending. But the most important ransom demand, which is gaining traction in the whole caucus, is to cut funding for the Department of Justice and the FBI if they don't succumb to their demands. That's right, the Republicans are now agitating to defund the police.

Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., has two amendments that would "prohibit the use of federal funding for the prosecution of any major presidential candidate prior to the upcoming presidential election on November 5th, 2024." Another one, proposed by Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is to "defund Jack Smith's office and end the witch hunt." He has the support of one of the most powerful people in the Republican Party:

The Holman rule would allow amendments to House appropriations legislation to reduce the salary of or fire specific federal employees, or cut a specific program. It has never been used for the purpose Greene proposes and was completely out of use since 1983 until the Trump-crazed GOP took over in 2017. (Greene was still an obscure Trump devotee posting about space lasers and QAnon on Facebook groups at the time.)

None of this is going to happen, of course. Even if they could easily pass these ridiculous proposals in the House, which is unlikely, the senate isn't going to go along with it. And in case they've forgotten, they'll need to get a presidential signature on it too. I'm pretty sure President Biden isn't going to do that.

And if they do shut down the government just for kicks anyway, one of the functions that will just keep going is the Department of Justice. NBC News reported:

The Justice Department said in a 2021 memo that in a shutdown, "Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an activity essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property." The Justice Department's plans assume that the judicial branch remains fully operational, which it has said in the past can carry on for weeks in the event of a funding lapse.

Special counsel Jack Smith's office is funded by a "permanent, indefinite appropriation for independent counsels," the department said in its statement of expenditures. Given its separate funding source, the special counsel would not be affected by a shutdown and could run off of allocations from previous years."

This is all more of the performance art that passes for politics in the Republican Party these days. A government shutdown over something that will make no difference is a perfect illustration of how preposterous they've become. Unfortunately for them, Republicans always take a big hit in popularity when they pull this stunt but they just can't seem to help themselves. And better leaders than Kevin McCarthy have gone down with the ship when they do it.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, each time this happens people get more cynical about their government. And that way lies (even more) madness. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Donald Trump Fani Willis House Freedom Caucus Jack Smith Kevin Mccarthy Trump's Crimes