Bartleby the Speaker

By retiring, Paul Ryan confirms his approach to holding President Trump accountable: He would prefer not to.

Alex Brandon / AP

Paul Ryan, like Herman Melville’s Bartleby, would prefer not to.

He would prefer not to stick around much longer in an increasingly toxic Washington. He would prefer not to have to drag himself through another cycle of fundraisers. He would prefer not to have to grapple with a splintered caucus and conservatives who periodically threaten to depose him. He would prefer not to risk losing the speakership, should Republicans lose the House in November.

Most of all, however, one gets the sense that he would prefer not to have to deal with President Trump.

Ryan, the speaker of the House, announced on Wednesday that he will retire from Congress at the end of this term. The most charitable explanation is this: Ryan never wanted the speaker’s job anyway but was thrust into it when John Boehner retired. Who can blame him for not wanting to be the man standing between a volatile caucus, and a president whom he doesn’t like, who doesn’t respect him, and who doesn’t care a whit for the kind of conservatism that has motivated Ryan throughout his long career in government?

Yet if a sense of duty is what motivated Ryan to take the speaker’s gavel, he is turning his back on duty by deciding to leave. Faced with an out-of-control president of his own party, the speaker has decided he’d rather quit than deal with it. Ryan’s retirement caps more than a year in which the House, along with the Senate, has abdicated its responsibility to hold the executive branch in check. Retirement just formally ratifies what has been clear since January 2017.

Time after time, Republican members of Congress have had opportunities to hold Trump accountable, on matters ranging from personal conduct to political interference in criminal investigations to the fighting of wars, and time after time, they have opted against. Now, some members are taking that to its logical conclusion by leaving Congress altogether. It’s not just Ryan. It’s also Representative Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee and one of the most talented (and entertaining) questioners in Washington. (Gowdy, more than Ryan, seems to just hate being in Congress.) It’s Bob Corker, who warned that Trump was going to start World War III. To a certain extent, it’s Senator Jeff Flake, who has maintained a months-long rhetorical barrage against Trump, but decided to leave the Senate rather than fight a possibly losing primary campaign.

The shirking of oversight is not an abstract question. Tuesday evening, The New York Times reported that Trump sought to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller in December, after previously trying to do so in June. (Trump was reacting to an inaccurate report that Mueller was digging into Trump’s own bank accounts, making clear how Trump’s desire to fire Mueller is entirely about protecting himself, even if it’s not clear what he’s so worried about Mueller finding.) Meanwhile, CNN reported that Trump is considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in order to make it easier to corral Mueller. And on Tuesday, the White House press secretary asserted that Trump has the authority to fire Mueller directly.

Congress could act to solidify Mueller’s position, and to protect him from what is plainly a campaign of attempted political interference by the White House. Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, have both said they believe Mueller should be allowed to complete his work, but words are as far as they’re willing to go. When Trump gestured at firing Mueller last month, a spokeswoman for Ryan offered boilerplate: “As the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job.” On Tuesday, McConnell said he would not bring forward bipartisan legislation to protect Mueller, reasoning, “I haven’t seen a clear indication that we need to do something to keep him from being removed.” The problem here is there’s no obvious intermediate step before Trump fires Mueller; by the time McConnell can see a clear indication, it will be too late.

This may be the freshest example of Ryan’s aversion to oversight, but it is only one of many. Back in May 2017, my then-colleague Molly Ball wrote on Ryan’s see-no-evil approach to Trump, as the speaker tried to pretend the president didn’t say wild things, and that the House policy agenda was on track. “There was a grim, haunted look in his bright-blue eyes, and it wasn’t hard to imagine why,” Ball wrote. Asked about whether the GOP would be better off with Mike Pence as president, Ryan replied, “I’m not even going to give credence to that.” Yet Ryan’s own members were saying so.

Not going to give credence to that became a mantra. Long after it had become clear that Trump’s tweets set—and just as often ripped up and rewrote—the congressional and national agenda, Ryan tried to pretend he could ignore the tweets, po-facedly telling reporters he hadn’t read them. “I’ve decided I’m not going to comment on the tweets of the day or the hour,” he said. “I haven’t seen them all to be candid with you.” It’s impossible to see how he could run Congress and serve as a check on the president without paying attention to the missives, though given how little Congress has achieved during the Trump presidency, he might very well have been telling the truth.

As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes made a series of erratic moves and systematically hamstrung the ability of the committee to conduct an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election—and its ability to function as a committee at all—Ryan looked on impassively. To the consternation of staffers, he refused to remove Nunes and instead allowed him to collaborate with the White House he was ostensibly overseeing; to disregard his own recusal; and then to torpedo the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation prematurely.

Congress has skipped out on other opportunities to hold Trump accountable, from forcing him to release his taxes to condemning Trump’s rhetorical excesses. (Asked to censure a president of his own party after the president referred to attendees at the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville last August, one of whom killed a counter-protester, as “fine people,” Ryan nonsensically said doing so would “descend this issue into some partisan hackfest.”)

Not all of the issues where Congress has abdicated are specific to Trump. Presidents George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump have all adopted tenuous and questionable readings of the post-9/11 authorization for use of military force against terror groups. It’s Congress’s role to declare war, but successive presidents have treated the AUMF as a blank check to fight wars, even against enemies, such as ISIS, that didn’t exist when Congress passed the AUMF. But when a bipartisan group of representatives moved to reopen the question of what the White House could do, and perhaps to limit it, Ryan stifled that debate.

It is not as though the House doesn’t understand the idea of overseeing the executive branch. This week alone, Nunes and Representative Peter King threatened to impeach Rosenstein and FBI Director Chris Wray for not turning over a document the House seeks. As many of his colleagues shrug at damning revelations about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Gowdy has led the charge in Congress to demand more information.

It is only when the president is involved that Republicans in Congress become faint-hearted and tight-lipped. Or to be specific, this president. They were aggressive in overseeing the Obama administration, and in late October 2016, when a Hillary Clinton victory still seemed likely, House Republicans were licking their lips with anticipation of “years” of investigating her.

Yet just as the fractious Boehner era now seems like a golden age compared to the present day, the fact is that Ryan’s successor is likely to be even less devoted to rigorous oversight of Trump. Ryan’s disdain for Trump was clear during the presidential campaign, and privately, he denounced him. Ryan is committed to a strain of conservatism that involves cutting government safety-net programs; Trump wants to keep them. Ryan is a social conservative; Trump occasionally puts in the effort at playing one, but fools no one. The two leading contenders to replace Ryan, Steve Scalise and Kevin McCarthy, have much more actively courted Trump. Gowdy’s successor at Oversight, whoever that is, will likely not have his prosecutorial sense of independence.

In theory, retirement might free people like Ryan up to hold Trump more accountable—at least for a short period before retirement. Flake has been outspoken, though he is so isolated within his caucus that it hasn’t had much effect. Corker seemed unleashed when he retired, but then began cozying back up to Trump, and considered un-retiring. (He decided against it after Trump, who does not forgive or forget, made clear he wouldn’t support it.)

Such a reversal seems unlikely, though. By retiring, Ryan is confirming what he’s made clear already: He simply doesn’t have any interest in being a check on Trump.