House Republicans reacted foolishly Tuesday to the Trump administration’s shifting explanations of the December calls that disgraced—and now resigned—National Security Adviser Michael Flynn made to the Russian ambassador to Washington.
But they weren’t ordering full-scale investigations and public hearings into Trump’s failed cover-up, but working frantically to shift attention away from the facts to the secondary question of how those facts got out. Fox News, Breitbart, and other reliable GOP outlets followed Trump’s lead in offering extensive harsh commentary about the FBI, NSA, and other national security agencies.
Attacking “intelligence” agencies (those are Trump’s scare quotes) for fulfilling their counterintelligence duties is a strategy beyond dumb. It has no upside for the Republicans, who position themselves as patriots trying to save America from Democrats hell-bent on destroying our way of life.
The strategy—if it can be called that—runs big risks. This is no one-off, a simple mistake by a new administration that will fade over time.
The response from House Republicans reveals its leaders are still in denial about the fundamental character of their party's leader, a con artist for whom lying and denying is a lifelong and thoroughly documented practice. Furthering the Trump cover-up by refusing to investigate can only hurt the GOP in future elections.
Since we can expect lying and denying to continue as standard operating practice under Trump, we can also expect more White House cover-ups. In turn, that means Republicans risk becoming perceived as more concerned about party interests and protecting Moscow than about ensuring American national security. For the GOP to be perceived as a party with divided loyalties would be disastrous to its brand.
The problem here is not that Flynn, a retired general and anti-Muslim bigot whom Trump chose as his national security adviser, called Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, during the transition. If all Flynn had done was express Christmas Day pleasantries it would be a good thing, even though Barack Obama was still president.
But that’s not what happened. And it didn’t just happen once.
Flynn placed numerous calls and the two men discussed the sanctions that the Obama Administration placed on Russia on Dec. 29 for interfering in the November elections on Trump’s behalf. That Trump praised Putin, the Russian leader, at every turn during the campaign and publicly solicited his help in hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails, should itself alarm Americans.
Indeed, even Americans who detest Clinton should be troubled that any presidential candidate would, at the least, happily benefit from foreign intervention in domestic elections.
Flynn and the Russian ambassador reportedly discussed Obama’s sanctions just before Russia first vowed counter-sanctions and then withdrew them, an action Trump praised as “very smart.”
Both Vice President Mike Pence and Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, told national television audiences that Flynn and Kislyak never discussed the sanctions. That was not true.
In his resignation letter Flynn offered a mealy-mouthed excuse unworthy of a military officer, for whom honor should be paramount. “Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed” Pence and Priebus “with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador,” Flynn wrote.
Flynn’s letter raises another question: Was his excuse another lie designed to protect Trump from responsibility for his actions?
Trump, The Washington Post reported Monday, in a story that appeared to trigger Flynn’s resignation, was warned weeks ago that FBI counterintelligence, which routinely monitors the calls of Russian agents, knew that what Pence and Priebus told the nation was false—that Flynn had indeed talked about the sanctions.
What matters here is that Trump kept this to himself, that he said nothing when Pence and Priebus gave Americans false information, and that he stood by Flynn.
The obvious question is whether Flynn was doing Trump’s bidding or was freelancing. No matter the answer, Americans need to know. How can the nation trust a president who lets his own vice president and chief of staff make false statements?
And then there’s what the president said on the way back from Mar-A-Lago on Air Force One. Asked about the report that broke the facts about what Flynn discussed, Trump feigned ignorance.
This scandal is not a one-off that will fade with time. Rather, it is the first peek into the dark vision of America's liar-in-chief. The response from House Republicans, who are putting Trump ahead of country and party, is disturbing.
Speaker Paul Ryan deflected when asked if he would investigate this scandal, saying, “I’m not going to prejudge circumstances surrounding this.” Perhaps he should look up the word “investigation.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said there’s nothing for him to investigate here. This from a man who held numerous public hearings on the actions of Hillary Clinton that resulted in finding nothing significant.
Chaffetz says any investigation would fall to Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes, who also says he’s not interested in looking into it. Echoing Trump’s tweets, Nunes declared: “The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded.”
Then there’s Rep. Mike Brady, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, asked the Committee to examine Trump’s returns to learn about his entanglements with Russia and Russians, and with Chinese banks and other foreign interests, and to investigate whether Trump is a tax cheat.
Doggett also noted that the tax returns would indicate whether Trump is in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars all federal officials from getting anything of value from foreign powers.
On Tuesday, on a 23-15 party-line vote, the committee refused the request. Brady says he will not allow the committee’s staff of tax experts to examine the president’s tax returns because it’s a slippery slope that could result in staff poking around in anyone’s tax returns. That’s a level of logic one might expect from grammar schoolers; it insults voters.
Looking the other way will not make the Trump financial issues go away. Indeed, expect big marches on April 15, a Saturday, demanding that Trump finally fulfill his campaign promise and release his tax returns.
The broader issues of Trump’s character—the ease with which he lies, his not fully understood fealty to Putin, his reliance on foreign powers for money—are not just going away.
The Flynn episode is just the beginning. With each new episode, more Americans will come to understand the true nature of the winner of the Electoral College vote.
House Republicans should ask themselves some questions: Why should we be loyal to a man who is only nominally a Republican? Were we elected to serve Trump or our nation’s best interests? Is Trump the kind of man we want our party to be identified with? And how much are we willing to risk our own positions and the long-term interests of our party to protect Trump from himself?