The worst-kept secret in all of American politics is that senior Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration worry not just about the president’s potential wrongdoing, but with his mental fitness to hold high office. Among themselves, and speaking to reporters off the record or on background, Republicans say incredibly alarming things. “One figure close to the White House,” The Washington Post’s White House bureau chief Phillip Rucker reports, “mused privately about whether Trump was ‘in the grip of some kind of paranoid delusion.’”
We can only guess who Rucker’s source is, because this sentiment is widely shared, but we can safely assume it’s someone of real influence, because the quote landed in the third paragraph of a front-page story. What Republicans of real influence say when their names are attached to their quotes thus represents one of the most stunning derelictions of public duty in recent memory. If, as The New Yorker’s legal writer Jeffrey Toobin put it, President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey was “a grave abuse of power,” Republican congressional leaders, nearly all rank-and-file members, and senior administration officials are engaging in a similarly grave abdication of it.
When Trump tried to bully Comey into silence via Twitter on Friday, House Speaker Paul Ryan repeated the go-to dodge he’s used for months to enable the indefensible things Trump does. “I’ve decided I’m not going to comment on the tweets of the day or the hour,” he said. “No one is disputing the fact that the president has the right to hire or fire an FBI director.”
But the truly shocking thing was what Ryan added separately. “I’m focusing on what’s in my control, and that is what is Congress doing to solve people’s problems.” Stipulating that what Ryan means by “solving people’s problems” is removing their health insurance to cut rich people’s taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars, what’s really amazing is how Ryan expresses his conception of what is within the power of the body that he leads. Ryan isn’t just choosing to look the other way; he is actually denuding himself and the Congress of some of its most basic functions.
Here is a partial list of things that are within Ryan’s control, or control of Congress more generally: whether Trump releases his tax returns; whether the House and Senate allocate the resources required to investigate Russian meddling in the election; whether Congress establishes a non-partisan investigative body to probe that issue; whether the attorney general can get away with lying to Congress; whether the attorney general can get away with unethical trespassing into issues he’s supposed to be recused from; whether the deputy attorney general or some other, more independent figure oversees the Justice Department’s Russia probe; whether a president who poses a threat to the security of the country (whether through foreign entanglements or ill temperament) will endanger the public for four years.
Congress legislates, obviously, but it also investigates and shapes the functioning of the executive branch. It can compel disclosure and testimony; it can withhold advice and consent for political nominees, and use the threat of doing so (or of denying the president funding for key priorities) to force the president to make personnel and policy decisions he might not otherwise agree to. The logic of wielding at least some of these tools has become so compelling that Republicans now find they can’t simply pretend there’s no need. Escaping the political conundrum of conducting serious oversight of a president of their own party requires a larger deceit.
Some members of Congress, like House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, have chosen to essentially suborn themselves, by conspiring with the White House to generate a counter-scandal where none exists. Even those who don’t behave as clownishly as Nunes did when he compromised the integrity of his panel’s Russia investigation view congressional hearings as an opportunity to ask off-point questions about “unmasking” or leaking or Huma Abedin or other issues that merit almost no attention.
Ryan and others have taken the somewhat different tack of pretending these powers don’t exist at all. Of neutering themselves.
The congressman who made this claim, Tom MacArthur, might be surprised to learn that there’s a House committee called the Oversight Committee. What he can’t feign ignorance of, to pick one issue at random, is the Republican health care bill. By brokering an agreement between fellow moderates and far-right members, MacArthur played a critical role in reviving that legislation. He knows it’s of cardinal importance to Trump and Ryan that some kind of Republican health care bill become law. If MacArthur claims to care about whether the Trump campaign collaborated with Russian intelligence officials to subvert Hilary Clinton’s campaign, he and those who voted with him for the American Health Care Act can withhold support going forward until, say, Ryan agrees to convene a joint select committee or Trump discloses his tax returns.
That would be an unorthodox but straightforward application of the basic power every member of Congress has. Should Ryan rediscover that the House he leads can investigate and appropriate in ways that force the executive branch to surface important information, there would be nothing extraordinary about it. The House has been doing that for centuries. What Ryan has done is surrender his own fundamental powers to Trump, knowing that people he likes and respects are telling reporters that Trump’s presence in the White House terrifies them.
Republicans know that, one way or another, this could end horrifically. They know they will be complicit if it does. And they’re abetting Trump anyway.