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Paul Ryan is helping Trump undermine the rule of law

He’s actively protecting the president, not just ignoring him.

Speaker Ryan And House GOP Leadership Address The Media After Their Weekly Conference Meeting Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Paul Ryan, in his final year in Congress, has done an impressive job of building a reputation as the figure responsible for the substantive conservative bills of the Trump administration — the tax cuts, repeal of the individual mandate for health care, boosts to military spending — while somehow escaping being implicated in President Trump’s most egregious wrongdoing: the financial crimes and possible collusion with Russia that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating.

Ryan rebuffed Trump after Trump praised Russian dictator Vladimir Putin at a summit in Finland, saying, “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally,” he refused to allow Putin to address Congress if he visits Washington, and he declared after the summit that “[Mueller] should be allowed to finish his investigation and carry out his work.”

He has also endeavored to shore up a reputation as a serious statesman interested in discourse, not a partisan bomb-thrower. In a talk to congressional interns, he admonished the young ’uns that “Snark sells, but it doesn’t stick,” telling them to “think about what you’re doing to kind of poison the well of society.”

This is important for Ryan’s potential future career as a lobbyist, think tank denizen, highly paid corporate speaker, or what have you. If Ryan is perceived as an enabler and co-conspirator with a fundamentally corrupt administration, some of those doors could close.

The problem is that Ryan’s prepared image is a lie. He has failed to take modest, reasonable steps to protect the Mueller investigation and hold the Trump administration to account. Even worse, he’s actively empowering forces in the House — most prominently Rep. Devin Nunes (CA) — who are conspiring to disrupt the investigation and protect Trump.

The clear goal is to delegitimize the Mueller investigation, to ensure that its conclusions are perceived as mere partisan propaganda rather than fact-finding by reputable investigators. That will enable Republicans in Congress to ignore any wrongdoing Mueller discovers, no matter how egregious, and ensure that efforts to impeach or remove Trump or any of his aides will fail.

It’s some of the most valuable work being done to protect Trump in all of Washington, and Ryan is right at the center of it.

What Ryan has done

In a rare failure of message discipline, or perhaps an effort to satisfy the administration at the expense of his reputation outside a narrow circle of Trump loyalists, Paul Ryan in May offered comments on Robert Mueller and said the quiet part loud.

“I think he should be free to do his job,” Ryan said, “but I would like to see it get wrapped up, of course.” He supports the investigation, sure, but he doesn’t want Mueller to keep digging for too much longer, regardless of how much wrongdoing he uncovers.

Then during his lecture in front of interns Wednesday, when a Democratic intern accused him of not standing up to Trump by defending the Mueller investigation, Ryan impatiently cut him short (so much for discourse) and responded, “Let me ask you this, is it still going on? It is, isn’t it? It hasn’t been ended; it’s still going on.”

This is a clever out for Ryan. While using the fact that the investigation hasn’t yet been scuttled as cover, Ryan is actively enabling efforts by his colleagues in the House to undermine and discredit it, and to, by extension, protect Trump. The investigation isn’t dead, but it’s weaker due to Ryan’s actions.

His greatest service to undermining the investigation has been through his empowering of and continued support for Devin Nunes. Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has been the Trump administration’s most effective and indefatigable supporter on this issue.

In February, Nunes released the infamous memo detailing claims of FBI bias against the Trump administration. The memo alleges that the FBI’s usage of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants to monitor Carter Page, the Russia-linked former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, was not properly vetted, and relied too much on the Steele dossier, the research for which was partly financed by the Clinton campaign, without discussing Steele’s possible bias.

The allegations are wildly misleading. A number of Steele’s findings have since been confirmed (suggesting it’s a valid basis of intelligence), and, most importantly, the FISA warrants contained a page-long footnote explaining all the ways Steele might be biased. The core allegation of the Nunes memo — that the FBI relied uncritically on Steele without considering his possible bias — was just a lie.

The memo’s release was a ridiculous partisan effort to discredit Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who signed off on one of the warrants) and, by extension, the Mueller investigation that Rosenstein oversees. “The campaign to release the memo was part of a much larger conservative effort to discredit the Mueller investigation,” my colleagues Zack Beauchamp and Alex Ward explained when the memo came out in February. “Its release could end up serving as pretext for removing those responsible for the Mueller probe.”

The latter hasn’t happened yet, but the memo has become powerful ammunition for Trump, his allies in pro-regime press outlets like Fox News and the Federalist, and other Trump loyalists in Congress to claim that the entire investigation is a deranged witch hunt perpetrated by “deep state” enemies.

Ryan has not only done nothing to rein Nunes in, he has actively defended Nunes and insisted that he’s done nothing wrong.

In February, faced with calls by Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to remove Nunes, Ryan replied, “I think they’re just playing politics and I think they’re looking for a political distraction, is what I get out of that. Look, the tax cuts are working, tax reform is working, we’ve got ISIS on the run, things are going well, economic confidence is at a 17-year high. I think they would love nothing more than to play politics and to change the subject.” This was his response when asked about the Nunes memo, a memo that Trump’s own FBI chief argued never should have been released.

“This does not implicate the Mueller investigation,” he continued, which is a bit like arguing that the Saturday Night Massacre didn’t implicate the Watergate investigation.

A couple of months later, Ryan carried even more water for Nunes. In early May, “senior FBI and national intelligence officials” warned the White House that Nunes was seeking information from the DOJ that “could endanger a top-secret intelligence source” and potentially “risk lives,” according to a report by the Washington Post. The White House agreed to hold back the information, which was also disclosed to the Mueller investigation.

In that moment, Nunes was going further than the White House in obstructing the investigation, to the point of threatening to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt. And Ryan was right there with him, telling the Post, “We expect the administration to comply with our document requests.”

In the face of House pressure — pressure Ryan did nothing to allay — the Justice Department partially complied with the subpoena in late June. But it wasn’t enough. Ryan held a floor vote on a resolution calling for more documents as part of the Nunes inquiry, which passed on party lines. Asked if he supported the idea of holding Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein in contempt of Congress if he didn’t comply, Ryan simply answered, “We expect compliance.”

Just this past Wednesday, two of the most vicious opponents of the Mueller investigation in the House, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH), introduced a resolution to impeach Rosenstein, with their stated reasons all relating to their ongoing effort to delegitimize the Mueller investigation. They fault Rosenstein for not appointing a second special counsel to investigate FBI/DOJ misconduct in investigating Trump and Hillary Clinton and in surveilling ex-Trump adviser Carter Page, and for redacting too much of a document given to Congress on the scope of Mueller’s investigation.

Ryan announced that he opposes the impeachment effort because, among other reasons, it could “dramatically delay” Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court if the Senate has to vote on the issue (ah, the reasoning of a man of principle). Ryan was sure to emphasize, however, that his beef with the Department of Justice was not over. “Republicans have been getting a lot of compliance from [DOJ] on the document request,” he said, but “we do not have full compliance. And we have to get full compliance.”

No, Ryan didn’t endorse a brazen effort to depose the official overseeing the Mueller investigation, but you do not, under any circumstances, gotta hand it to him. He is still collaborating in efforts to intimidate the Justice Department, and he has still done a tremendous amount to empower Nunes, Meadows, Jordan, and others in their efforts to undermine Rosenstein and Mueller.

This delegitimization effort really, really matters. If the Mueller investigation uncovers wrongdoing by Trump or senior officials, whether or not Trump and those officials stay in office is entirely dependent on the actions of congressional leadership. And casting the investigation, from the beginning, as a political witch hunt is a prophylactic measure meant to ensure that no matter what the investigation finds, it will not be interpreted as grounds for impeachment or removal.

That’s important defensive work on behalf of Trump, and Ryan has been deeply engaged in it

Far more numerous, however, are Ryan’s sins of omissions: things he could have done to strengthen the Mueller investigation, protect it from interference, and subject the Trump administration to real scrutiny.

Ryan could have blocked Nunes from releasing that memo in the first place, and removed him from his chairmanship. He did not.

Ryan could condemn House Oversight Committee Chair Trey Gowdy and House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte for holding farcical hearings on FBI agents Lisa Page and Peter Strzok meant to cast the whole effort to investigate Trump’s Russia conduct as a witch hunt.

He could threaten to strip Gowdy and Goodlatte of their chairmanships unless they commit to launch investigations into Trump’s fraudulent charity, into his potentially corrupt real estate deals abroad, and into the possibility that Trump actively collaborated with Russian intelligence, WikiLeaks, or both. He could urge them to subpoena Trump’s tax returns and search them for irregularities. He has not done any of that.

Ryan could bring the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, a bipartisan bill that would protect Mueller against arbitrary firing, to the House floor for a vote, or force House Goodlatte to consider it in committee. He has not; he hasn’t even endorsed the bill.

Ryan could force a floor vote on the Protecting Our Democracy Act, a bill with 200 co-sponsors (two of whom are Republicans) to create a National Commission on Foreign Interference in the 2016 Election to investigate what exactly happened with Russia’s interference. He hasn’t endorsed the bill, let alone brought it up for a vote.

Ryan could also force a floor vote on a version of the Senate’s Secure Elections Act, which would get rid of paperless electronic voting machines that are hackable and push states to engage in routine audits to verify election results are legitimate. Mainstream Republicans like Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) are on board. Ryan is not.

A recent report by Politico Playbook suggested that congressional Republicans think all the criticism they’re receiving for carrying water for Trump is unfair. The message, Playbook reported, boiled down to, “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT US TO DO?” They claim they’ve held sufficient hearings and slapped enough sanctions on Russia.

The litany above is what I want them to do, and the person who could make them do it is Paul Ryan. He could remove Devin Nunes with the stroke of a pen. He could bring floor votes on the above legislation whenever he wants. He could whip votes for the legislation too, and push Mitch McConnell to move it in the Senate.

That he doesn’t do any of that, and in fact actively enables the cover-up, is telling. Ryan genuinely believes that the cause of slashing corporate taxes and tax rates for rich Americans is worth collaborating with a reckless administration in an elaborate attempt to cover up wrongdoing. He makes that choice every day, and it should blacken his historical legacy.