Donald Trump’s Thursday press conference was so meandering and deranged that it brought the basic ebb and flow of all politics to a halt, as power brokers across Washington, including Republicans on Capitol Hill, stopped what they were doing to watch along in amazement.
Trump raged against illegal leaks, but deemed news about those leaks “fake.” He told small but obvious lies (that he’d won the presidency with the biggest electoral college margin since Ronald Reagan) and potentially enormous but as-yet unprovable ones (that, to his knowledge, his aides weren’t in contact with Russian intelligence during the campaign). He suggested the rise in anti-Semitic threats since his election were false flag operations undertaken by his political enemies. And he asked April Ryan, a White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, to convene a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus based on the assumption that she—an African American—and members of the CBC were fast friends.
But as surreal as the spectacle was, it wasn’t disturbing enough to shake Republicans out of their determined obliviousness to the chaos of the Trump administration. We’ve seen the pattern repeat itself so many times, it’s grown tiresome: Trump becomes unhinged; Republicans pretend they didn’t see it, or say they won’t comment on every offhanded Trump comment, or just chuckle about his “unconventional” presidency; and everyone moves on.
Their ostrich-like reflexes have been a running joke in politics for months now. But in this case, a great deal of reporting indicates Republicans awoke to the frightening implications of letting an unstable man have free reign over the government, yet remained committed to the course they’ve chosen nevertheless:
It is natural for the party that controls Congress to step up investigations in periods of divided government, and for the pace of oversight to slow when the government becomes unified. This tendency has become more pronounced in recent years as the parties have become more ideologically polarized. The opposition party will always find fault in the way the party in control is using or not using its power. But the unexpected, and abrupt, transition between completely divided and completely unified government has revealed a fatal weakness in our systems of political checks, which Republicans are placing under great strain.
These systems and processes—congressional oversight, Justice Department autonomy, and legislative independence—weren’t designed to withstand a vengeful, lawless, id-driven madman taking over one party, and then the government, without popular support. The moment Republicans stopped treating Trump like an interloper, and started running conventional algorithms of politics and governing—as if he were a competent political leader—they began courting ruin.
In many ways, it makes no sense to distinguish between Trump and the Republican Party any longer. Trump is popular among Republicans, and Republican officials are satisfied with the White House’s policy output. “I think we know enough now to know that Donald Trump is doing the same kinds of things that Jeb Bush would have done or Marco Rubio would have done or Mitt Romney would have done,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday.
But it is too pat to pretend Republicans don’t view Trump differently than they viewed past party standard bearers, and with much, much more alarm. That they may be too cowed or craven to do anything about their concerns is beside the point: All that matters for the purposes of identifying sources of optimism is that their moral barometers aren’t broken in quite the way Trump’s is.
If congressional Republicans were going to use their power to check Trump, the way they would a non-partisan political or national security threat, we have a pretty decent sense of what they’d do.
In the policy realm, they might restrain his Muslim ban and deportation force designs; in the oversight realm, they would force him to sell off his assets, or at least release some of his tax returns, as well as launch a full inquiry into whether his campaign colluded with Russian intelligence to disrupt the presidential election. As a matter of basic governing competence, they would try to sideline reckless advisers like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the now-deposed Michael Flynn. Republicans probably can’t stop Trump from holding destabilizing press conferences, but they could make life uncomfortable for him and his team unless and until they started to show some semblance of control.
Instead they choose to whine anonymously to the press.
Republicans, and the broader right, justify their inaction with two vacuous forms of moral reasoning. First, they posit that if Trump’s behavior offends liberals, then it must have some merit.
Second, they take comfort in the hope that Trump will leave in place a policy agenda they largely support, even if he temporarily disrupts norms, alliances, and other sources of order.
McConnell will allow, as he did at a Friday briefing at the Capitol, that he’s “not a fan of [Trump’s] daily tweets,” but that he is a fan of what Trump’s “actually been doing.” Many lawmakers candidly admit that they’ll tolerate an unthinkable amount of recklessness so long as they and Trump are on the same page legislatively. And the conservative media is a party to the bargain.
The consequences of this kind of blinkered thinking are already causing a breakdown of our aforementioned accountability mechanisms and possibly even the rule of law.
With the oversight channel closed, alarmed bureaucrats and members of the administration have taken as a last resort to leaking sensitive and in some cases highly classified information to the media. The ruling party’s response to the revelation has been not to rein in abuses, but to pursue the leakers. This includes oversight leaders in Congress…
…but also Trump himself, who announced Thursday at the same press conference that he “called the Justice Department to look into the leaks…criminal leaks,” creating the impression, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, that his administration will sic federal law enforcement authorities on his political enemies.
Meanwhile, Representative Jason Chaffetz, the GOP’s chief investigator, has asked the Department of Justice to pursue criminal charges against a former Hillary Clinton aide who helped set up her private email server. The same man who continued issuing subpoenas at an impressive clip after the FBI shelved its Clinton investigation believes the appropriate number of subpoenas the scandal-plagued Trump administration should face is zero. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who called on his predecessor, Loretta Lynch, to recuse herself from the Clinton investigation for extremely flimsy reasons—is resisting demands, based on clear-letter rules, that he recuse himself from federal investigations of Trump’s aides and their potential ties to the Russian hackers who disrupted the election.
Less than a month into his first term, Trump resembles Nixon at his most besieged—angry, flailing, driven to distraction. But unlike Nixon, Trump enjoys the complicity of nearly his entire party. Unless that relationship breaks down, it will be impossible to contain the fallout of Trump’s presidency until January 2019 at the earliest. By then, the damage might be irreparable.