From a certain perspective, their timidity is understandable. They know that to publicly challenge Trump—to call out his ethical transgressions, cruelty and indecency even as they support his policies—invites impassioned attacks from Trump supporters and, in some cases, a primary challenge. No one likes to be under attack, particularly by the base of one’s own party; and no one wants to lose their job.
Moreover, they will argue, they must defend the president in public so they can have influence in private. They have also convinced themselves that they are essential to the project of repairing the Republican Party post-Trump, and that this requires that they not be viewed as disloyal to Trump while he’s serving as president. “What good does it do to attack Trump?” they will ask. He won’t change his ways, and they will only weaken themselves in the process. (Many of them are happy to attack Trump in private conversations, citing chapter and verse things he has said or done that alarm them, showing that they both know better and are playing a cynical game.)
That, at least, is the story they tell themselves. Some of what they say is worth taking into account. But what they don’t tell themselves, probably because it would be too psychologically shattering, is that they have become fully complicit in a corrupt enterprise called the Trump presidency. (Senator Mitt Romney is the rare exception.) They are defending actions they know are wrong and that, if they had been done by a Democratic president, that they would be outraged by. More than that, they are validating Trump’s approach to politics—the hyper-aggression, the lawlessness, the mendacity, the shamelessness—and therefore guaranteeing imitators. It also happens that their influence on the president is far smaller than they tell themselves. They have made concession after concession after concession, justifying each one along the way. Then you look back at the road they’ve traveled, and it’s breathtaking. Donald Trump has changed them far more than they have changed Donald Trump.