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State of Disunion

Democracy Is Not a Needle to Be Threaded

If Republicans were true patriots, they'd go to the mat for the country, not for a corrupt, morally bankrupt president. So why are they hedging?

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The walls, at long last, are starting to close in on Trump.

The GOP knows this. They know the current occupant of the Oval Office is incompetent, that his word is worthless, that he is a national security threat. The Republican Congressional leadership may be cowardly, and it may be devious, and it definitely has its stooges and some terrible actors. But it also includes quite a few sentient adults. And they know that Donald Trump is deeply corrupt and almost certainly a criminal.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has gone from heating up to being fully on fire, but last week we learned that, simultaneously, the Southern District of New York opened a separate, criminal investigation into Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen months ago—on referral from Muller. The FBI’s raid on Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room, seizing his files, personal devices, and recordings, has left Trump enraged and terrified and frothing at the Twitter thumbs. He spent last week publicly flirting with firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Mueller; exploding in meetings; savaging the reputations of Mueller, James Comey, and Andrew McCabe (though each of the latter two has provided some fodder for his own smearing); railing against the Russia investigation, which has produced double-digit indictments of Russians and Trump campaign operatives (e.g., Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos) and which he still absurdly whines is a “witch hunt” even as he has been confirmed as its subject along with his indicted operatives and members of his family; and histrionically tweeting increasingly absurd attacks on Rosenstein, the FBI, the Justice Department, Democrats, Hillary Clinton, and pretty much anyone or anything in his attempt to deflect from reality.

The portrait that has emerged in the past week in nearly every news outlet (except Fox, of course) is that of a man becoming unglued, and the habitual, barely restrained, toxic chaos devolving past the point of painful parody into something close to pandemonium. We see Trump raging, isolated and unhinged, lashing out at everyone, ever-more-dependent on the “counsel” he obtains from long-term cronies, enablers, toadies, and Fox News personalities—with White House employees unnerved, fearful not only of their own careers but for what his unrestrained actions and tirades portend for the rule of law and for the country.

Any “sentient adult” can see what is happening here, writes Adam Davidson in the New Yorker. And, as he wisely observes, this barely-threaded presidency is unraveling and unlikely to survive. Separate and apart from the existing evidence of collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, the likelihood of “rampant criminality” within the Trump Organization and by Cohen and Trump is high. (If there is truth to McClatchy’s latest story about Cohen being in Prague in August or September 2016 to potentially meet with Romanian hackers and Russian operatives to discuss cash payments for stolen DNC emails, just as the Steele Dossier suggests, then it will become increasingly untenable for Trump to argue he was not involved in conspiring with Russia.) Trump is a man with decades of fraud, bankruptcies, breached contracts, mob ties, and extremely questionable and likely illegal business activities under his belt. He had no business running for office, and this was clear during the campaign and has become ever-clearer in a slow-motion avalanche of evidence of his bottomless corruption, narcissism, and venality.

You might wonder then, why the GOP is so fiercely protecting this man instead of protecting the country’s institutions from his assaults and threats. You might think they would be willing to send a clear, unequivocal message to Trump that dangling pardons in front of Manafort and Cohen, publicly savaging key witnesses in Mueller’s investigation into his obstruction, and threatening to fire Rosenstein or Sessions (and, implicitly, anyone else) for not shutting down the Russia/obstruction investigation is unacceptable and shall not come to pass. You might think that they would not want to break democracy to prop up a man who has no loyalty to anyone but himself. You might think they would look at the history of Watergate, and want to come down on the side of the United States (as their oaths of office require) rather than on the side of a would-be autocrat who makes Nixon look like a choirboy, especially if he turns out to actually be Putin’s puppet rather than just play one on TV. You might think they would be unwilling to allow a president to hold himself above the law by obstructing the Russia investigation, retaliating against and threatening witnesses in that investigation with jail, attacking and threatening the livelihoods and integrity of the public servants undertaking and/or overseeing that investigation, and smearing and attempting to co-opt both the Department of Justice and the FBI to serve his own personal ends. You might assume that the Republican Congresspeople who have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution would, in fact, defend the Constitution against its assault by a “president” who attacks and undermines it daily.

You would be right to demand they act, but you would be wrong to believe that they will. The GOP has not drawn, as Trump likes to say, a red line with respect to any single thing that he has said or done or threatened to do, and it has taken no action, as a party, to protect the rule of law; to stand for the proposition that the president is a not a tyrant, not a king, and not above the law. Just as the GOP has not stood up in defense of the FBI, or the Justice Department; or for Rosenstein or Mueller; or for Comey before he was fired for improper reasons. Just as the GOP did not stand up for Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL) or San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz when Trump savaged them. Just as it has not stood up for a free press — it has not stood up for CNN, or the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or any other news outlet that Trump has defamed and vilified as “fake.” The GOP did not even call out Donald Trump when he refused to condemn Nazis in Charlottesville, nor when he issued an unconstitutional and bigoted ban on Muslims. Donald Trump has repeatedly trashed American institutions and violated American norms, and the GOP, as a party, has simply ducked its head.

The GOP-controlled Congress has the capacity, not to mention the Constitutional obligation, to stand up to Trump and for the rule of law and democratic norms, against a man who ignores and subverts them both. If they are not comfortable with impeachment out of fear of their base, there are many actions that Republicans could take to rein him in, ranging from passing legislation to protect Rosenstein and Mueller to censuring Trump for his abuses of power to meeting with him privately in groups to warn him to dial it back or face a catastrophic loss of support. The GOP could also work to educate the base that it fears, instead of letting Trump’s rantings (amplified by his Fox cheerleaders) go largely unchallenged. The occasional positive comment about Mueller by a senator or House member here or there is simply not sufficient to push back against the Fox/Breitbart/right-wing pro-Trump propaganda machine.

Their complicity and culpability with respect to Trump are really not in question. The only question as to each of them is the degree of that complicity and culpability. And so, with rare exceptions, the GOP-controlled Congress, breaks down into four broad groups:

  1. The outright aiders and abettors. These are the stooges and conspirators who call for Mueller to be fired or who undermined the investigation in a series of ways. These are congressmen like Devin Nunes, Bob Goodlatte, and Trey Gowdy, who amplify Trump’s lies, demanding a special counsel to look into the FBI surveillance of Carter Page in a transparent attempt to delegitimize the investigation, or who make demands of Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray (even threatening them with contempt) to extract information, apparently in order to bolster Trump by attempting to discredit the Russia investigation. These are the people who sabotage their own Congressional investigations and distribute a partisan memo containing classified information over the objections of the Trump-appointed Republicans who run the FBI and the DOJ—a memo intended to undermine the rationale for the surveillance of Carter Page but that instead confirmed its legitimacy. These are the people who only this past Friday, signed a letter to Rod Rosenstein demanding that, by close of business Monday, April 16, 2018, he turn over to them the memos written by James Comey that Mueller has examined in the course of his obstruction investigation. (I can think of no possible basis why these three House committee chairs would want the memos other than (i) to attempt to protect Trump and assist his ongoing effort to discredit Comey, and (ii) if Rosenstein refuses to produce the memos, to use his refusal as a pretext to fire him and/or further their campaign to discredit and undermine him, as well. Notably, the ranking members of their committees did not join in the request.)


  1. The apologists and enablers. These are your craven, conflict-avoiding, kick-the-can-down-the-road weasels like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who assure us that they don’t think Trump would ever go so far as to fire Rosenstein or Mueller, so no need to act. You won’t see them on Fox disabusing Trump’s frothing base of the disinformation spread by Trump, Nunes, Goodlatte, and Sean Hannity and his ilk. As the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority leader, they are the only ones with the institutional stature to speak for the Republican caucus and help put a stop to these insane conspiracy theories and the endless nonsense, to say that it is unacceptable for the president of the United States to obstruct a valid investigation by firing Rosenstein or Mueller, and to tell the public unequivocally that were he to do so, the GOP would immediately join with Democrats to pass veto-proof legislation to reinstate Mueller and protect the investigation. But they don’t. McConnell has been silent as fears of Rosenstein’s firing have mounted (his most recent statement, in January 2018, was that Mueller needs no protection), and Ryan, who hand-picked Nunes and has sided with him over Rosenstein in disputes, has not supported any action to protect him or Mueller, instead suggesting it would be a “mistake” for Trump to fire them and insisting that he himself has received private “assurances” from the White House that Trump will not fire them. How very reassuring, since we all know that Trump is a man of his word. (The White House’s past assurances of the many people that Trump had no plans to fire include Comey, Michael Flynn, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, and David Shulkin, among others.) So, thanks a lot, Paul Ryan, we’ll miss you.


  1. Those who play both sides of the fence (e.g., Ben Sasse, Charles Grassley, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, and Gowdy). These are the ones trying to thread the needle by occasionally speaking out to suggest that there is a line in the sand that Trump should not cross (i.e., it would be “suicide” or the “beginning of the end of Trump’s presidency” to fire Mueller), while refusing to take any concrete action to do anything about it, or, worse, taking contradictory actions that undercut any suggestion that they would in fact protect Rosenstein and Mueller. They will sometimes talk the talk about how Mueller—a lifelong Republican with an ironclad reputation until the GOP starts trashing him—is to be trusted and must be left to do his job. So we have Senator Collins saying, Congress should vote on legislation to protect Mueller, but then shrugging that Trump won’t sign it—no worries, if Rosenstein is fired, the Senate will not confirm a replacement and so the investigation will likely go on, and that will surely send Trump a message! We have Congressman Gowdy stating that the Mueller investigation should go on, only to sign that letter seeking Comey’s memos, just as he both participated in the misleading Nunes memo and admitted it is not a basis for undercutting Rosenstein or the Russia investigation. We have Grassley and Graham saying they support Mueller and Rosenstein, yet carrying Trump’s water by demanding that the Justice Department try to find evidence to support his lies and supporting the GOP’s false narrative about the origins of the Russia investigation, and who have refused for months to move legislation to protect Mueller through Congress. We have Orrin Hatch urging Trump not to fire Mueller, yet criticizing Tom Thillis for co-sponsoring the protect-Mueller legislation because: “It’s not good politics in the end. It says you don’t trust the president.” (You can’t get a bigger “tell” into the mindset of Republicans than that.) These people talk out of one side of their mouths, but act out of the other. And so while Grassley finally took up the legislation to protect Mueller in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, as the threat of Rosenstein’s firing and thus to the investigation was overwhelming the capital, he also began drafting a secret amendment that Democrats expect will water down the legislation’s protections and doom its passage. The legislation, moreover, is not only weak, but possibly unconstitutional — according not only to Mitch McConnell, but also to Neal Katyal and Kenneth Starr — an odd duo to pen a joint op-ed if ever there was one. But a Congress genuinely interested in protecting the investigation from Trump’s interference would adopt the suggestions set forth in that editorial rather than the legislation the Senate is currently working on.
  1. Those who remain silent. These are the ones too craven even to speak, but their silence is complicity and it enables Trump.

Republicans who have stayed silent or equivocal, refusing to act en masse to challenge him, failing to draw their own red lines around Mueller and Rosenstein, and declining to work with Democrats to protect the rule of law, are not going to be able to duck this issue much longer. They cannot thread this needle by allowing the investigation to be threatened and Trump to abuse his power with impunity. They cannot claim to defend our laws and values while allowing Trump to break them. They will have to choose between their country and Donald Trump.

We already know what those in the first category, the Devin Nuneses of the world, will do if Trump fires Rosenstein or Mueller; they have already chosen Trump over country. The rest have done so in a milder way, less affirmatively, presumably in the hopes of avoiding having to make the choice and anger the base. Trump won’t let them avoid the choice. His election has always pointed inexorably and inevitably to this showdown. Republicans’ collective self-delusion in thinking they can escape the taint of Trump’s corruption and abuse, that they can support him without crippling our country’s norms and values, is simply the embodiment of their own cowardice. They cannot thread this needle. They will have to choose.

And, as the nation waits, on constant edge, with a coalition of hundreds of national grassroots organizations poised to take to the streets in cities nationwide (sign up here or here) should Rosenstein be fired or Mueller’s investigation otherwise undermined, as Trump squirms in a maelstrom of scandal and continues to lash out against his perceived enemies, he is becoming both increasingly desperate and increasingly dangerous —heightening not only the risk that he will act to shut down the investigation, but also that every action he takes, in any context, is only in furtherance of his own self-protection and deflection.

Yet it remains an open question whether the rest of the GOP—those in categories 2 through 4— will choose their country, or choose Trump. The choice should be a no-brainer. But if past is prologue, too many will choose Trump. They will continue to let our values be eroded and our principles violated, bit by bit, as autocratic norms set in and Trump is further enabled, above the law—unless and until we vote them out, and reinstate it.

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