By all rights, Brett Kavanaugh’s dramatic confirmation hearings should have been the big story last week. But if the Sunday shows are a reliable barometer, the Senate Democrats’ concerted, if mostly ineffectual, assault on the very conservative D.C. appellate-court judge couldn’t compete with Bob Woodward’s incendiary new book, Fear, or the New York Times op-ed by an anonymous Trump administration official who thinks the president is unfit to govern.
The shows kept wending their way back to the “quiet resistance” inside the administration, from Woodward’s report of Defense Secretary James Mattis ignoring President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Syria’s dictator to the anonymous op-ed author’s description of Trump’s sullen resistance to more sanctions after Russia poisoned an ex-spy in Britain. Guests on the shows included Vice President Mike Pence, the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Democratic Senators Dick Durbin, Mark Warner, and Chris Coons.
Pence predictably condemned the anonymous column as “un-American” and an “assault on our democracy.” Speaking on Fox News Sunday, he said he does not know who wrote the piece but suggested that person should leave the administration. His less predictable response came when the host, Chris Wallace, asked whether top officials should submit to lie-detector tests to prove they did not write the op-ed. “I would agree to take it it in a heartbeat,” the vice president said.
Let’s make note of this moment: The No. 2 elected official in America publicly proclaimed his readiness to take a polygraph test to verify his loyalty to the president. Imagine Joe Biden strapping on a blood-pressure cuff for Barack Obama, or Dick Cheney wearing velcro rings to measure his pulse for George W. Bush.
Pence said on Face the Nation that he was positive the op-ed didn’t come from someone on his staff, even without administering lie-detector tests. “I don’t have to ask them,” he said. “I know their character.”
The host, Margaret Brennan, also asked the vice president whether he’d ever been in a conversation about using the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove President Trump from office. (Another moment to take note of.) “No, never. And why would we be?” Pence said before pivoting to tout the administration’s accomplishments.
Christie took a different tack on ABC’s This Week, where the former governor and Trump-campaign surrogate is now a network contributor. Wearing a bright-pink tie and looking into the camera with a thousand-yard stare, Christie seemed to be performing for the president, whose 18-month-old administration has yet to include him. He argued that the op-ed’s author couldn’t really be a senior official, since Cabinet members and other top officials have issued denials. (CNN has a list of op-ed deniers, updated as of Saturday.) He seemed to be quibbling over the definition of senior, which could plausibly apply to hundreds of administration officials.
President Trump, in comments and in a one-word tweet last week, has posed the question of whether the author committed treason. Federal law defines treason as going to war against the United States or giving aid to its enemies. Several hosts asked administration officials how the anonymous op-ed could possibly match that description.
When asked by Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, the senior counselor and veteran spinmeister Kellyanne Conway offered impossible-to-disprove hypotheticals: “How do we know they haven’t promised other things? How do we know they’re not taking other documents?” When Todd asked how there could be any broken laws for prosecutors to investigate, she replied, “It depends. There could be, and there could not be.” But Conway also said, “Nobody’s investigating the op-ed.”
Pence didn’t defend the idea that anonymous public dissent could constitute treason, but he said the op-ed was an “assault on American democracy” because it showed a government official trying to thwart the will of an elected president. Though Pence chided former President Obama for publicly criticizing his successor in a speech Friday, Obama had voiced a similar view of anonymous Trump administration officials promising a quiet resistance. “That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work,” Obama said in the same speech. “These people aren’t elected. They are not accountable.”
The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat seemed to concede that there was a problem with an aide undermining a president. Todd asked Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois whether the president deserves a staff that doesn’t try to impede his agenda. “Well, of course,” Durbin said, before quickly handing blame to Trump for running a dysfunctional White House and leading his own aides to believe “his behavior is going to result in some terrible things for America.”
Senator Chris Coons of Delaware agreed with Pence on a key point on Fox News Sunday but framed it differently: “I think the honorable thing to do is to resign and to go public with the author’s concerns about the president’s fitness to serve.”
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, agreed with Republicans that the op-ed author should go public and reveal his or her identity. But he blasted Trump’s open criticism of the Department of Justice, including over the recent indictments of two GOP congressmen within a few months of an election: “Does this president not understand that the Justice Department is not a tool of his own personal power?”