The real issue isn’t Donald Trump. It’s his party.

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US President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he meets with Finland's President Sauli Niinisto (not shown) in the Oval Office of the White House on October 2, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

CNN

 (CNN)On Thursday, standing in front of the White House, President Donald Trump urged two foreign powers to look into his political rivals.

Here’s the full quote:

“Well I would think that if [the Ukrainians] were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens. Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine. So, I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens.”

That Trump statement comes hard on the release of the transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump repeatedly reminds Zelensky of all the US has done for Ukraine before asking him to look into debunked corruption allegations surrounding former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Trump’s behavior, while hugely unorthodox, erratic and unpresidential — isn’t actually all that surprising. This is who he is — and is reflective of the sort of campaign he ran for president and how he has acted once in the office. What is surprising, or shocking might be the better word for it, is the fact that Republican elected officials seem willing to not just condone this sort of behavior but even defend it.

“Since the summer of 2016, the Obama Justice Department conducted a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian influence, which lead to a further 2-year investigation of President Trump by Special Counsel Mueller, producing no charges against him,” tweeted Texas Sen. John Cornyn on Friday morning. “Now, the Trump Justice Department is investigating foreign government influence, VP Biden conflicts of interest, and possible corruption, as well as the provenance of the bogus opposition research compiled for the Clinton campaign produced by an ex-British spy, and this is grounds for impeachment?”

“I want to find out what happened during 2016,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said Thursday. “If there’s potential criminal activity, the president of the United States is our chief law enforcement officer. We have proper agreements with countries to investigate potential crimes so I don’t think there’s anything improper about doing that.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham described the whistleblower complaint over Trump’s Ukraine call as a “political setup” and dismissed it as “all hearsay.”

That circling of the wagons is remarkable given what we already know of Trump’s behavior.

Even the most cursory reading of the rough transcript of the Ukraine call — released by the White House — makes crystal clear that Trump was:

a) making sure Zelensky knew how much the US did for Ukraine

b) emphasizing that the US’s goodwill hadn’t been properly reciprocated by Ukraine

c) asking Zelensky for a “favor” — to look into a conspiracy theory about the possibility that the Democratic National Committee server from the 2016 election was in Ukraine

d) suggesting, very strongly, that Zelensky look into allegations of corruption regarding Joe and Hunter Biden in the Ukraine. (There is no evidence of any wrongdoing by either Biden.)

And it’s also not up for debate that Trump, standing in front of the White House, said China — a clear adversary of the United States — should be looking into Hunter Biden’s activities in that country.

As Tim Alberta, who wrote the seminal book on how the Republican Party reacted to Trump’s hostile takeover, put it on Twitter Friday morning:

“Barack Obama stands in front of the White House.

“With the entire world watching, he declares, ‘China should start an investigation into the Romneys.’

“Republicans wouldn’t just call for impeachment. They would call for charges of treason.”

Yeah, that about covers it. And speaks to one of the most underplayed narratives of the first three-ish years of Trump’s presidency: The total and complete capitulation of the Republican Party’s elected leaders to the cult of personality that is Donald Trump.

Trump’s brand of conservatism — as I’ve noted many times — is hugely far afield from the vision of the movement most Republican elected officials once espoused. Trump cares little for debts and deficits, and his protectionist view on trade runs directly counter to the free trade policies advocated by Republicans in the not-at-all distant past. His turbulent personal life — and coarseness in communication — stand in stark contrast to the once-proud evangelical wing of the party.

And yet, even as his actions in office grow more and more erratic and without historical precedent, the party stays united behind him.

Why? Simple! Fear.

Every GOP elected official lives in fear of becoming the next Jeff Flake or Justin Amash — conservative Republicans in good standing with the party until they decided to publicly criticize Trump for something or other. The President pounced, his base attacked and both men found themselves in deeply precarious political predicaments.

Fear of being “Flaked” explains, for example, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-South Carolina) absolute and total about-face on Trump. Ditto Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. And dozens and dozens of other Republican elected officials who voiced deep concern about the idea of Trump even being their party’s nominee in 2016 — much less the President of the United States.

If political survival is your only goal, then what Republicans are doing vis a vis Trump is not only fine, but right. Of course, leadership is a very different thing than what we are seeing out of Republican elected officials at the moment.

And there is the very real possibility that the damage Trump is doing to the party (let alone the country) will have impacts that last well after he is gone from office — and come back to haunt those Republicans who stood silently by.