Last week, as Mueller closed in on his first indictments in the Russia investigation, the Republican Party signaled its no-holds-barred defense of Trump through a coordinated assault from members of Congress and right-wing media outlets.
Trump tweeted himself closer to the panic zone, using all caps and exclamation points, suggesting that he may eventually lash out through abuses of his presidential powers. This full display of Republican capitulation to Trump tees up the question of whether anything Trump could do would damage his prospect of serving a full term.
The press focused obsessively on the welcome, but ineffective anti-Trump comments of Senators Flake, Corker, and McCain. While it is a relief to hear Republican senators calling out the president’s mean, narcissistic, anti-democratic, and dangerous behavior, the statements – and the ensuing silence from other Republican members — emphasized the fecklessness of establishment Republican politicians and the extent to which Trump has captured the party. Flake and Corker are quitting and McCain’s health will not allow him to run again. While eternally optimistic Democrats purport to see all three seats as opportunities, Steve Bannon is exulting at the prospect of running Trump-crazy candidates. Bannon and Trump are rejoicing that their stranglehold on the Republican caucuses appears stronger than ever. Meanwhile, of course, the three maverick senators are likely to continue to vote in sync with Trump. While McCain broke on repealing the ACA, he will almost certainly support tax cuts.
The bigger story out of Congress flew lower on the radar. That was the complete abdication of constitutional responsibility by the Republican leadership of all of the committees investigating Russian collusion, with the possible exception of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In a depressing display of partisan unity, the committees abandoned the pretense of serious inquiry and unveiled their Trump defense strategy; deflect, distract, and make it all about Hillary. The House committees will now devote their time and the public’s resources to investigating appropriate “unmasking” by Susan Rice, the Democrats’ partial funding of the Steele dossier, and allegations that Hillary Clinton corruptly intervened to give Russians control of twenty percent of U.S. uranium ore. The House Intelligence Committee, House Judiciary Committee, and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will now focus their sights on these targets, putting aside any urgency to get to the bottom of the Russian attack on our democracy. The Republican response is firmly grounded in fantasy. Congressional Republicans seem intent on implementing the careful plans they laid to undermine Hillary Clinton’s administration. All that staff work and nothing to do with it. So what if she lost. Impeach her anyway.
They will follow Trump’s lead in trying to turn funding of the opposition research that led to the Steele “dossier” into an allegation that the Clinton campaign colluded with the Russians. For non-conspiratorial minds that connection may be a bit tricky. Presumably, the argument is that by continuing to fund opposition research that had been launched by a Republican donor during the Republican primary campaign the Clinton administration indirectly (through GPS Fusion) funded Steele, who collected some information from Russian sources. Voila! Clinton is in Putin’s pocket!
Republicans appear to have forgotten that the intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in the election with the goal of defeating Clinton. They hacked DNC emails. If Hillary colluded with Russia, she was badly snookered. Moreover, the Clinton campaign did not use information from the Steele research in the campaign. Somebody in the campaign needs to explain why, if they had Steele’s research, it was not political malpractice to leave it on the shelf. Reports suggest that segments of the Steele research have been verified. Mueller’s team should be looking into Steele’s reports and, if they are independently verified, following the evidence. And, we should all stop referring to Steele’s research as a “dossier.” The term connotes something secret and vaguely disreputable. It’s opposition research on a candidate contained in a series of memos. Every campaign does it.
Allegations of Clinton’s involvement in a corrupt uranium deal have been thoroughly debunked. As Secretary of State, Clinton was one of nine officials sitting on the body that approved the deal. The approval issue appears not to have reached the level of the Secretary of State. The allegations have legs only because Clinton served as Secretary of State while her husband ran the Clinton Foundation, which depended for its operations on large gifts of money, frequently from sovereign nations. That makes for easy targets in criticizing Clinton’s tenure. But, there is no credible link between the foundation and approval of the uranium deal.
Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein announced that despite a protracted dance around the possibility of cooperation, they would be heading in different directions. Grassley will be building a case to fire Loretta Lynch and James Comey. He, too, seems disappointed that Hillary lost, depriving him of the joy of vigorous oversight and impeachment.
Republicans in Congress, therefore, will not fulfill their important role in investigating serious allegations and educating the public.
Meanwhile, the right-wing message machine has gone into hyper drive, parroting Trump’s misdirection. They will now follow Trump into attempts to minimize today’s indictments as unconnected to the campaign.
During Watergate or Iran/Contra the messaging tools available to the President’s defenders were considerably less potent. Fox News did not exist. The array of partisan think tanks and reinforcing advocacy organizations was in its infancy. Social media did not exist. And, while people in power had always challenged the fairness of the press, norms still existed that allowed a majority of people to rally around agreed upon facts. Trump and his supporters, building on the foundation laid by Fox, have been stunningly effective in debasing regard for the truth and respect for the press. Trump has lowered our expectations of presidential ethics and respect for the rule of law. His every outrage is embraced, explained away, or greeted by silence from his supporters.
That leaves a real question as to whether anything Mueller produces can penetrate the Trump protective bubble. Although it took over two years for the Watergate break-in to bring down Nixon, in our lightning-paced digital environment we may find out much more quickly whether our democratic safeguards remain strong enough to uphold the rule of law.
Bill Yeomans is the Senior Justice Fellow at Alliance for Justice. He currently serves as Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and previously taught constitutional law, civil rights, and legislation at American University Washington College of Law. He also served for 26 years in the Department of Justice, where he litigated cases involving voting rights and discrimination in employment, housing, and education, and prosecuted police officers and racially motivated violent offenders before assuming a series of management positions, including acting Assistant Attorney General. For three years, Bill served as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has also held positions at AFJ and the American Constitution Society. The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily represent the positions of Alliance for Justice.