On Friday, one of the lowest moments of Donald Trump’s presidency was quickly followed by what is shaping up to be a crowning legislative achievement. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI, and is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. If reports are to be believed, Flynn is preparing to testify against the president, his family, and members of his administration. Hours later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proudly told reporters that he had the votes to pass a deeply unpopular, deficit-busting, inequality-increasing tax reform package. Republican lawmakers are on the verge of handing Trump a victory that has eluded him for the last ten months: a major piece of legislation to sign.
This sequence of events is an extreme example of the criticisms that have dogged the Republican Party, which will seemingly stomach any illicit behavior, criminal or otherwise, to get its tax cuts for the rich. Republicans are poised to hand the president a bill that will dramatically alter the United States tax code—not to mention its health care system—hours after a top former member of that president’s cabinet turned state’s witness against him. This is an unprecedented crisis, one that has the potential to spiral out of control. Congress’s immediate priorities should be to ensure the integrity of Mueller’s probe, to guarantee that the rule of law will prevail, and to provide oversight of a president who in the past has lashed out in anger at his perceived enemies. Instead, Congress is rushing through an enormous giveaway to the wealthy, as if it is in a race with Mueller to get to Trump first.
The reasons for urgency are clear. Congressional Republicans are feeling the heat from donors, who could sit out what is likely to be a bloodbath election in 2018 if the GOP squanders the opportunity to provide a windfall for them and their businesses. Trump, meanwhile, has often seemed like a lame duck in the first year of his presidency and has been desperately seeking a major legislative accomplishment. With Flynn flipping, that urgency only becomes greater. Increasingly isolated, the president needs to deliver a victory to his base.
But this has created a bizarre situation in which Republicans essentially pretend that the president’s very serious legal problems don’t exist. Instead, they literally stuff the tax reform bill with a lobbyist’s wish list of goodies, as if the mounting evidence that the Trump campaign broke the law during the 2016 election has nothing to do with their party. Furthermore, they are making it abundantly clear that they are not responsible for whatever happens in the fallout.
This is a moment fraught with danger. Already we’re hearing reports that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was involved in Flynn reaching out to the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., could also face charges. As Mueller closes in on the president’s inner circle, he could take any number of retaliatory actions. The most obvious would be firing Mueller in a last-ditch attempt to protect himself and his family. Trump could also preemptively issue pardons for his family members. Republicans in Congress could prevent this by drawing a line in the sand: They could revive legislation to insulate Mueller’s investigation from political interference, and make it clear that pardons would invite impeachment.
Republicans made this corrupt bargain a long time ago. Mitch McConnell, after all, refused to cooperate when Obama officials insisted that Russian interference be made public in the summer of 2016. The thinking is that the bargain was worth it—that installing a compromised, unqualified, and unstable president was acceptable if it allowed Republicans to fulfill longstanding promises to cut taxes for the rich and decimate the social safety net. The conjunction of events on Friday perfectly expresses just how rotten this bargain is, and the extent to which Republicans have abandoned any pretense of being a responsible party that cares about democratic values.