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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — The problems that bother us most are the ones we bring on ourselves. This is why Republicans are so out of sorts with Donald Trump. The party created the rough beast it is now trying to slay.

When Trump gave out Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number on Tuesday at an event in the South Carolina senator’s home state, he did it to show he wasn’t backing down after his outlandish attacks on Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero. But he was also making clear to the Republicans assailing him that he really does have their number.

Graham had called Trump a “jackass” for dissing McCain’s sacrifice. The Donald wanted to document that Republicans now so horrified by his bombast once fell all over themselves to pander to him in quests for his help and seal of approval.

“Hey, didn’t this guy call me, like, four years ago?” he asked about Graham. According to the Republicans’ provocateur-in-chief, Graham wanted a “good reference” to Fox & Friends, a show on the network that conservatives revere, and then whether “he could come and see me for some campaign contribution.”

Trump claimed he still had the card on which he had scribbled down Graham’s cell number and read it out. It was Trump’s evidence that Graham had cozied up to him.

We can’t know exactly what was said in that friendly chat, but Trump’s story rings true because Republican politicians have been more than happy to seek his help and overlook every kooky and appalling thing he said — as long as the celebrity put his fame and dollars to work to elect Republicans other than himself.

Trump struck again on Wednesday, tweeting a picture with another of his Donald-come-lately critics, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, “in my office last cycle playing nice and begging for my support and money. Hypocrite!”

The bowing before Trump, you’ll recall, was happening when the man was the midwife of birtherism. Over and over, he questioned whether President Obama was eligible to be in office because he had allegedly not been born in the United States.

“Now, he doesn’t have his birth certificate or he’s not showing it,” Trump said in a typical comment on CNN in 2011. “So it’s a very strange situation. … The fact is, if he wasn’t born in this country, he shouldn’t be the president of the United States.” Even when Obama produced his certificate in late April of that year, Trump did not back off, because, he explained, “a lot of people do not think it was an authentic certificate.”

Graham, to his credit, took Trump to task for continuing his birther ways, though Graham did so gently (on Fox News, of course) by noting dutifully that “there’s a lot of things Mr. Trump can be proud of.”

That’s a long way from “jackass,” and other Republicans were even more eager just to hug Trump close. When he accepted Trump’s endorsement during the 2012 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney was giddy about how cool it was to be with the man who emblazons his name on gaudy hostelries.

“There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life,” Romney enthused when he got Trump’s backing at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. “This is one of them. Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight. I am so honored and pleased.”

And if you believe Trump is alone in seeing himself as one of our country’s great gifts to public policy, think again. Romney praised Trump for his “extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works and to create jobs” and for being “one of the few who has stood up to say China is cheating” on trade. For Republicans, Trump was a genius until he wasn’t.

NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Perry on Meet the Press last Sunday if Republicans are confronting a “reap-what-you-sow issue” with Trump. Perry’s reply was lame: “I’ll suggest to you we’re seeing the real Donald Trump now.”

Sorry, but the real Donald Trump has been in full view for a long time, and Perry’s new glasses can’t explain his newfound clarity. I don’t credit Trump with much. But he deserves an award for exposing the double standards of Republican politicians. They put their outrage in a blind trust as long as Trump was, in Perry’s words, “throwing invectives in this hyperbolic rhetoric out there” against Obama and the GOP’s other enemies.

Only now are they willing to say: “You’re fired.” No wonder Trump is laughing.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.