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‘Never Trump’ Republicans: Fringe, or force to be reckoned with?

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Donald Trump dominates the Republican Party and conservative movement. But a small, yet forceful, “Never Trump” contingent in the media and politics infuriates him and may gain traction in the election year.

Disaffected Republicans looking for like-minded analysis have better options than the regular anti-Trump jihads on MSBNC or left-wing social media sites — from fellow conservatives.

Start with The Bulwark, an online site and podcast directed by a Wisconsin conservative Charlie Sykes and including luminaries from the right like Bill Kristol, who was the editor of the Weekly Standard. It pummels the president’s ineptitude and integrity and his enablers.

The “Lincoln Project” brigade — led by longtime Republicans like George Conway (his wife is Trump’s counselor), Steve Schmidt, who once was a top aide to John McCain, and John Weaver, who was a top aide to Ohio Gov. John Kasich — have run mocking negative ads that went viral after infuriating Trump.

There have been no tougher critiques of the Trump presidency than those written by conservative columnists Michael Gerson, George Will, Max Boot and Pete Wehner.

Mind you, none of these critics on the right have become big government, wealth redistributing left wingers. If Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress were to be elected this November, most of these people will be among their most articulate critics.

But they know the traditional conservative values of limited government, free markets and global leadership aren’t in this president’s vocabulary. They resent that their philosophical mentor William F. Buckley has been replaced in Trump’s Republican Party by Sean Hannity.

“We can see how his con works,” Charlie Sykes told me, “how he manipulates conservative memes and exploits the worst and darkest elements of the right. We’re the ones calling out his bullshit because we know it’s bullshit.”

Sykes was a popular Wisconsin conservative radio talk show host and author until Trump was elected. He left and wrote a book, “How the Right Lost its Mind.” And he founded The Bulwark.

Bulwark isn’t just headlines and quick hits — most pieces are well documented and devastating. One of the lead writers is Tim Miller, who was Jeb Bush’s communications director.

On March 25, Miller laid out the timeline of the president’s handling of the pandemic. It documented how Trump ignored the early advice of experts — Republicans — to vastly expand testing and obtain hospital supplies which soon would be essential. This was one of the earliest and most comprehensive accounts of the massive failure.

Most recently Miller weighed in on the ludicrous “Obamagate” conspiracy hoax, Trump’s charge that the former president and his top officials illicitly sought to fix the last presidential election and then to undermine Trump’s presidency.

Exhibit A is Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whom these conspirators claim was framed when he plead guilty — on multiple occasions — to lying to federal officials. William Barr, the attorney general of Trump’s dreams, now seeks to drop all charges against Flynn.

A short reprise: Flynn got $45,000 from Russian state television, sat next to Vladimir Putin at a 2015 Moscow dinner and had an inappropriate conversation with the Russian ambassador at the end of the Obama presidency. Then — when that call was revealed — he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about it.

Why wouldn’t the FBI want to interview him? They did, and he lied to them too.

Nobody forced Flynn to lie. Flynn is a serial liar.

The mere discussion of “Obamagate” is a travesty but, Miller notes, it’s vintage Trump. His entire history in business and politics is to “create a preferred universe of convenient facts, then insist they are true, no matter what.”

It seems nearly certain that the children of Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be an issue going into November, and The Bulwark has gone there too.

These anti-Trump conservative activists are making their mark.

What remains is whether former top Trump officials or Republican office-holders will enter the fray. If so, they could affect a few voters on the margins, like college educated white men, who went for Trump, 53 percent to 39 percent, last time.

The ex-Trump aides who’ve turned on him don’t matter. One who might, though, is former Defense Secretary James Mattis. Several people who know him say he cringes at the notion of a second Trump term, but the four-star Marine general has resisted weighing in on presidential politics.

A few retired Republican office-holders, like conservative Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, will come out against Trump. Others, like former New Hampshire Governor and Senator Judd Gregg, are mortified by this president; in a recent column Gregg said Biden is the antithesis of Trump — “decent, fair, substantive and well-informed.” But in an interview with me, Gregg suggested the Democratic nominee’s leftward lurch concerns him.

The long-shot blockbuster would be George W. Bush.

It’s no secret he and Trump have a mutual contempt for one another. If a former Republican president — the head of an influential Republican brand for decades — supports a Democratic candidate, it would send shock waves.

It’s very unlikely — but keep an eye on it.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2020 election Donald Trump Donald Trump presidential campaign George Conway James Mattis Jeff Flake Joe Biden John McCain Mike Pence Never Trump movement Presidency of Donald Trump Sean Hannity Vladimir Putin William Barr

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