Why was his principled stand so lonely?
There are many reasons, besides general concern about conspiracy theories, that a Republican member of Congress would want to speak out on behalf of a former representative being unfairly attacked.
As members of a coequal branch of government charged with checking and balancing the executive, legislators might also feel duty-bound to rebuke flagrant abuses of the presidential pulpit, if only to deter future executive misbehavior. As public figures, they’d presumably all hope for defenders if the president were spreading thinly veiled murder accusations about them.
And even if they’re not concerned for Scarborough as a victim, they might have noticed that Trump’s attack on a political adversary did collateral harm to the still-grieving widower of the woman who died. “The President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him—the memory of my dead wife—and perverted it for perceived political gain,” that widower wrote in a letter to Twitter asking that Trump’s tweet be removed. “I would also ask that you consider Lori’s niece and two nephews who will eventually come across this filth in the future.”
That message apparently moved Utah Senator Mitt Romney to speak out Wednesday morning, when he tweeted, “I know Joe Scarborough. Joe is a friend of mine. I don’t know T. J. Klausutis. Joe can weather vile, baseless accusations but T.J.? His heart is breaking. Enough already.”
Read: How Mitt Romney decided Trump is guilty
The same morning, Representative Liz Cheney told reporters in Washington, “I do think the president should stop tweeting about Joe Scarborough. I think we’re in the middle of a pandemic. He’s the commander in chief of this nation, and it’s causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died. So I would urge him to stop it.” But this trio was among the rare exceptions of the 197 Republicans in the House and 51 Republicans in the Senate. Silence was the rule. There was no rebuke from the GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (who sidestepped questions about the matter, professing ignorance) or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; no reaffirmation of basic decency as a valuable norm by a few dozen members; no call from a frustrated caucus to refocus presidential attention on the disease ravaging the country rather than one accidental death.
Perhaps that dereliction of the duty to protect and defend basic decency should not surprise anyone at this point. Trump bullied Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, implying that Cruz’s father killed JFK and likening Carson to a pathological killer. “Now those targets count as Trump’s most faithful servants,” Jonathan Chait observed in a recent New York magazine column. Trump has been conditioned to expect reward rather than rebuke from prominent GOP officials after he behaves badly.