In the midst of the most devastating testimony delivered about a sitting president in the living memory of nearly everyone serving in Congress today, the Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, shuffled before microphones to say that Donald Trump—in trying to interfere with FBI investigations—probably just made an innocent mistake: “The president’s new at this. He’s new to government and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses. He’s just new to this.”
Ryan wants us to imagine Trump sitting alone in the White House with only his intellect and his muscle memory as his guides. He asks us implicitly to forget that Trump has a White House counsel, a vice president with years of governing experience, and an attorney general who campaigned with him for a year, all at his behest to instruct him. He asks us, again implicitly, to forget that Trump pierced the veil meant to separate the White House and FBI, to corrupt the rule of law, and that he then fired FBI Director James Comey, lied about why, and confessed—to NBC’s Lester Holt, and to senior Russian officials in the Oval Office—that he did it to remove “the cloud” of Comey’s investigation of his campaign.
It is an article of faith in Washington that no revelation about Trump’s conduct, no matter how severe, could convince Ryan and members of his conference to launch an impeachment inquiry. As dispassionate political analysis, this may well be true. It would certainly be foolish to believe the opposite—that Trump’s impeachment is a certainty.
But for everything we know about Trump’s conduct already, all this means is that the ethical and strategic conduct of Republicans in Congress should now be as heavily scrutinized as Trump’s. Republicans may not know what they’re covering up, but covering up they are; and they may believe they’re acting in their own political self-interest, but they almost certainly are not.
Bracketing everything we know about Trump’s potentially illegal behavior almost makes the GOP’s somber indifference to his conduct in office more damning. Trump, we were reminded Thursday, is an abject liar who doesn’t even seem to understand the concept of the public interest. In his testimony, Comey asserted that he began his practice of taking notes after every encounter with Trump before the inauguration because he became “concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
Comey used variants of the word “lie” repeatedly, as if to correct for the fact that reporters and news outlets are reluctant to use it themselves.
In his extensive interactions with Comey, Trump’s central interests were Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security adviser, and his own public image. Trump badly wanted the FBI director to exonerate him in public, even if it meant selling his subordinates down the river. He sought absolution for Flynn, notwithstanding the fact that Flynn misled the public, compromised national security, and changed U.S. policy on behalf of a foreign government—which he served as an unregistered agent.
Unlike Obama, Comey said, Trump never held meetings aimed at protecting the public, and the bedrock principle of free and fair elections, from active Russian intelligence measures. Instead, Trump has rewarded the Russian government with favorable policy, and hosted its agents at the White House.
Even absent any criminal wrongdoing, no honorable person should want a president who subverts the interests of the American public in this way to continue to serve.
But layer legal concerns on top of this, and the strategic argument for Republican indifference collapses as well. Though the president was not under investigation through the duration of Comey’s service, Comey all but confirmed that Trump is now and that he likely would’ve been if Comey had been allowed to keep his job. “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct [the Flynn investigation],” he demurred. “I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to find out the intention and whether that’s an offense.”
Comey believes his own firing “was an endeavor to change the course of the Russian investigation.”
Ryan’s special pleading on Trump’s behalf already requires him to insult the public’s intelligence. He may have sunk so much cost into his complicity that he sees no option other than to sink more. Rather than take the hits as they come, he should consider the predicament he’ll face if Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller refers an obstruction of justice complaint to Congress. Like Comey, Mueller is a former prosecutor and FBI director. If he tells Congress, in so many words, that Trump would face a federal indictment were he not the president, will Ryan still reconcile himself to ignoring the crisis he’s helped inflict on the country?
The answer may well be yes. But if it’s not, then—to coin the president—Ryan should see his way clear to cutting Trump loose.