Paul Ryan, as speaker of the House of Representatives, is the leader of his party’s caucus in the lower chamber. He’s also a constitutional officer of the United States, with obligations to the Congress and the country that transcend party. Here is his take on former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony that President Donald Trump repeatedly sought to intervene in an ongoing criminal investigation in an inappropriate way: “He’s just new to this.” Ryan told reporters on Thursday that he “probably wasn’t steeped in long-running protocols.”
James Lankford, a senator from Oklahoma who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, described Trump’s intervention in the Flynn matter as a “light touch.”
Meanwhile, virtually every Republican celebrated the news that, at the time Comey was still in office, Trump was not personally under investigation from the FBI.
This is part of an ongoing process of Republicans lowering the bar for Trump’s statements and conduct in a way that is both nonsensical and dangerous. The president of the United States is not supposed to interfere in criminal investigations. There’s no “he only did it with a light touch” or “it was to help out a buddy, not himself personally” exemption to that rule. And “he’s too ignorant to know that was the rule” is an absurd excuse to make for a septuagenarian who also happens to be president of the United States.
Either he has the character, intellect, temperament, and disposition to do the job properly or he doesn’t.
The answer to that question is ultimately more political than legal, and Republicans are giving their misguided answer to it on a daily basis.
The GOP’s absurdly low bar for Trump
The Republican spin on this involves a twofold absurdity:
- The first plank is pretending not to notice that after Trump’s request to Comey regarding Flynn was not fulfilled, Trump fired Comey. That’s not a light touch at all.
- The second plank is pretending not to notice that a president covering for subordinates’ crimes is serious wrongdoing, even if the president himself is not under investigation.
Forget Russia. Trump, like any president, has a wide range of contacts with friends, political supporters, donors, and the broader social and professional networks of his subordinates. He also oversees a vast executive branch that is responsible for supervising a huge range of law enforcement officials and regulatory agencies.
He could, if he were so inclined, sit in the Oval Office and spend his time making various phone calls to various law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and regulators and suggest to them that they should drop various investigations and enforcement activities into his various friends and donors. That would, of course, end up transforming the United States into the kind of authoritarian kleptocracy that the founders feared.
The safeguard would be Congress. Congress is supposed to stiffen the spine of executive branch officials by reminding them that their oath is to the Constitution and not to the president. Congress is supposed to oversee the executive branch and police not only legal misconduct but political misconduct, like perverting the legal process to benefit his friends and allies.
Instead, congressional Republicans have chosen to stand on the ground that it’s okay to order an investigation quashed as long as you do it with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge — even if you follow up by firing the guy you winked at. And they’re standing on the ground that it’s okay to quash an investigation as long as the investigation you quashed targeted a friend and close political associate, rather than the president himself.
That’s a standard of conduct that sets the United States up for massive and catastrophic erosion of the rule of law, not only, or even especially, because the president is behaving corruptly, but because Republican Party members of Congress have chosen to allow it.
Republicans know something is wrong, but they don’t care
Ezra Klein rightly wrote yesterday that Trump’s presidency is an American crisis.
I would only add that it’s a political crisis. Anyone who has had any occasion to speak to Republican members of Congress or other pillars of the Washington conservative establishment knows they are perfectly aware that Trump is unfit to serve as president.
“Washington conservatives know that reporters are not making up these incredible quotes, or relying only on Democratic holdovers, or getting bits of gossip from the janitor,” as Megan McArdle put it in an excellent Bloomberg View column speaking as a member of the beltway right trying to address the grassroots right. “They know that the Trump administration is in fact leaking like a rusty sieve — from the top on down — and that this is a sign of a president who has, in just four short months, completely lost control over his own hand-picked staff.”
Over lunch, a right-of-center think tanker told me that during the transition his colleagues joked that in this administration, you’d rather get a job in a federal agency than a White House job — because that way you’d stay out of jail when the indictments come down.
But Republicans have decided they aren’t going to address this crisis situation. Instead, they are going to try to manage it in pursuit of the shared agenda of tax cuts, welfare state rollback, and deregulation of banks and polluters.
A political crisis needs a political solution
The Comey hearing was a moment of high political drama. But it was also a fundamentally meaningless spectacle.
Nobody approached the hearing with an open mind, and, more to the point, there is no real legal issue to investigate. The question of Russian interference in the 2016 election is an important foreign policy and counterintelligence matter, and it’s possible it will reveal that crimes have been committed. But as far as Trump is concerned, the only evidence that matters was the evidence from his interview with Lester Holt in which he said he fired the FBI director in order to stymie the Russia investigation.
The question before Congress is whether or not it’s appropriate for a president to fire law enforcement officials in order to protect his friends and associates from legal scrutiny. And the answer congressional Republicans have given is that it’s fine.
The question before the public is now whether or not they will face political consequences for having reached that conclusion.