The immediate question raised by the latest information published by The New York Times is: What next? Will Congress investigate? Will it subpoena records, including the tax records that may clarify the financial obligations—if any—Donald Trump has to Russia? And since Congress is so dominated by one party, that first question raises a follow-up and more specific question: What will the leaders of the Republican Party in Congress do?
In the first shock of the news about the Trump team’s communications with Russian spies, Republican leaders are expressing revulsion and resolve. They expressed similar emotions after the shock of the “grab them by the pussy” recording. Then they collapsed.
Remember, the Republican rank-and-file remain much more intensely committed to Trump and the presidency than to their leaders in Congress. Fox News and talk radio are busily concocting rationalizations and distractions. Donald Trump will still be president a week from now—and he has many tools by which to retaliate against his perceived opponents in the intelligence services. Unless Congress revolts against him, he could well prevail, destroying the integrity and independence of law enforcement and counter-intelligence in the process.
The warnings of January still hold in February: Nothing will happen automatically. There are no mechanisms, only people. The people in the spotlight right now are the Republican members of Congress.
It’s up to them whether a truly independent investigation occurs.
It’s up to them whether Americans receive an accurate statement of Trump’s financial ties and obligations to Russian entities.
It’s up to them whether the CIA and FBI are protected from the purge that those around Trump are already hinting he may be planning for his own self-preservation.
Will they this time act in the honorable way?
Here’s something to consider. Trump has never shown much enthusiasm for the congressional agenda of reforming Obamacare and reducing taxes. He has developed no plans, and his White House staff is not structured in a way likely to produce such plans anytime soon.
Without presidential leadership—and with the visible and traditional disagreements between House members who mostly hold safe seats, and senators vulnerable to state-wide electorates—it’s hard to see how anything gets done in the next session. Congressional Republicans are now at risk of wasting this rare chance, risking an all-Republican government accomplishing nothing beside Trump’s self-aggrandizement and corrosion of constitutional government. That will suit Donald Trump fine. It can hardly suit Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.
Suppose Mike Pence were president now. Tax-reform legislation would be hitting the floor of the House. A competent White House staff, headed by people with intact reputations for honesty, would be hammering out the compromises necessary to repeal healthcare reform. A functional National Security Council would be generating options for responding to Russia’s cheating on arms-control treaties and aggression in Ukraine. Democrats and liberals would be assailing congressional Republicans on immigration and abortion—not espionage and treason. Instead, their hopes, their interests, their constituencies, and possibly their careers are all at risk, subordinated to the personal imperatives of a president who does not share their principles and does not care about their party.
Each member of Congress went into this line of work with some idea of serving their country. They do not yet know whether clandestine cooperation occurred between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. They do not know whether that clandestine cooperation continues now. Possibly Trump imagines that he is using Putin, rather than being used by him.
But what they do know is that Trump is doing damage to U.S. alliances and the U.S.-led global economic order. They know that he’s staffed his White House with disturbing personalities who do not seem to recognize or accept ordinary ethical norms. They hear from business leaders, foreign heads of government, and their own contacts in the defense and intelligence agencies that they are alarmed and frightened. They see the president of the United States behaving in ways no president should behave. They are partisan creatures, as they have to be in their line of work, but they have enough experience to appreciate that concerns don’t cease being valid just because they are raised by their Democratic colleagues. They must feel that their restraint on the president and the White House is the most important constitutional line of defense against presidential corruption—or worse. If they don’t act decisively now, when will they act? If this isn’t bad enough—what will be?