Congressional Republicans have long taken one of three paths when it comes to the many controversies of their character-challenged president: Defend, duck, or denounce.
Rare indeed are the denouncers. Exemplars of that camp are Senators Ben Sa sse, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker, the latter two of whom aren’t seeking reelection, and recently defeated Representative Mark Sanford. In a category all his own: intrepid John McCain, who is gravely ill and hugely missed in Washington. Their reputations and personal honor will survive the Trump era intact.
But far more GOP congressfolk have chosen either to defend this president or to duck and deflect. After this week’s twin torpedoes — the conviction of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the guilty plea of erstwhile Trump fixer Michael Cohen — exploded into the hull of the USS Trump, the first posture is ridiculous, the second increasingly untenable.
Bluntly put, the Trump defenders now look like dupes, dopes, or sycophants. Into that camp, put people like US Representatives Jim Jordan, Devin Nunes, and Mark Meadows, as well as recently indicted colleagues Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter. They have debased themselves in their shillery, their willingness to ignore or twist the truth on Trump’s behalf.
Then there are the awkward political bedfellows, those Republicans who have persistently deflected or shrugged when confronted by this president’s conduct and controversies.
That acquiescence has led some high-profile figures to shrink before our very eyes. Speaker Paul Ryan, for one; he is exiting, stage right, a small, sad figure. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell for two; to describe him as utterly spineless is to insult the animal kingdom’s many invertebrates.
Lindsey Graham, who sometimes seemed gutsy as McCain’s wingman, has been steadily diminished by the accommodationist posture he’s taken toward Trump. Charles Grassley and Orrin Hatch, men who once seemed to have some stature, have far too often enabled and justified Trump. Add to that group mild-mannered Rob Portman. And John Cornyn, who has bitten halfway through his lip as Trump has abused his close friend Jeff Sessions, the out-of-favor attorney general. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have fared somewhat better, given that they had the fortitude to cross Trump on his effort to repeal the ACA and have been somewhat more willing to speak out. But even for them, carefully modulated disagreement may not cut it any longer.
Trump’s cry of “witch hunt” was always false, of course. But this week’s developments should lay bare what arrant nonsense it is.
As for Trump’s “no collusion” claim — or, as it now apparently stands, no collusion that Trump knew of, though it wouldn’t be a crime even if had occurred — there certainly was an attempt at the same. As the late Charles Krauthammer wrote about the infamous Trump Tower meeting: “It turned out to be incompetent collusion, amateur collusion, comically failed collusion. That does not erase the fact that three top Trump campaign officials were ready to play.” Further, there’s ample reason to believe Trump himself knew beforehand about that meeting, as Cohen is now alleging.
The magnitude of this week’s news should cut through all the cant.
As Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told CNBC, “Anybody who says this is not disturbing is not being honest,” adding that his advice for Republicans was “don’t rush to attack or defend anybody because you just don’t know enough to have a reaction that you can still defend three months from now.”
Rational people simply can’t pretend any longer that the special counsel’s investigation is about nothing, that it’s driven by partisan politics, or that it has produced nothing. It’s a time for choosing. Republicans now must decide if they back a dissembling president or the search for truth.