WASHINGTON — According to House Speaker Paul Ryan, the declassified Devin Nunes memo — alleging FBI misconduct in the Russia investigation — is “not an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice.” According to President Trump, the memo shows how leaders at the FBI “politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats” and “totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe.”
Both men are deluded or deceptive.
Releasing the memo — while suppressing a dissenting assessment from other members of the House Intelligence Committee — was clearly intended to demonstrate that the FBI is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. The effort ended in a pathetic fizzle. Nunes’ brief, amateurish document failed to demonstrate that FBI surveillance was triggered solely or mainly by a Democratic-funded dossier. But for cherry-picking above and beyond the call of duty, Nunes deserves his own exhibit in the hackery hall of fame. This was a true innovation: an intelligence product created and released for the consumption of Fox News.
Trump’s eager publication of the memo was expected. Yet his action crossed a line: from criticism of the FBI to executive action designed to undermine an ongoing investigation. Trump seems to be testing the waters for direct action against the FBI by testing the limits of what his Republican followers will stomach. So far, there are no limits.
With the blessing of Republican leaders, the lickspittle wing of the GOP is now firmly in charge. The existence of reckless partisans such as Nunes is hardly surprising. The nearly uniform cowardice among elected Republicans is staggering. One is left wishing that Obamacare covered spine transplants. The Republican-led Congress is now an adjunct of the White House. The White House is now an adjunct of Trump’s chaotic will.
And what to make of Ryan? I have been a consistent defender of his good intentions. But after the 17th time saying “He knows better,” it dawns that he may not. By his recent actions, the speaker has provided political cover for a weakening of the constitutional order. He has been used as a tool while loudly insisting he is not a tool. The way Ryan is headed, history offers two possible verdicts: Either he enabled an autocrat, or he was intimidated by a fool. I believe Ryan to be a good person. But the greatest source of cynicism is not the existence of corrupt people in politics; it is good people who lose their way.
The United States Congress is an institution of great power. According to the Constitution, it can deny jurisdiction to the Supreme Court. It can remove the commander in chief. But now it watches as Trump makes the executive branch his personal fiefdom. It stands by — or cheers — as the president persecutes law enforcement professionals for the performance of their public duties.
Why can’t Republican legislators see the personal damage this might cause? Trump has made a practice of forcing people around him to lower their standards and abandon their ideals before turning against them when their usefulness ends. His servants are sucked dry of integrity and dignity, then thrown away like the rind of a squeezed orange. Who does Trump’s bidding and has his or her reputation enhanced? A generation of Republicans will end up writing memoirs of apology and regret.
The political damage to the GOP as the party of corruption and cover-up should be obvious as well. This is a rare case when the rats, rather than deserting a sinking ship, seemed determined to ride it all the way down.
But it is damage to the conscience that is hardest to repair. For Republicans, what seemed like a temporary political compromise is becoming an indelible moral stain. The Russia investigation is revealing a Trump universe in which ethical considerations did not (and do not) figure at all. Who can imagine a senior Trump campaign official — say Paul Manafort, or Donald Trump Jr. — saying the words: “That would be wrong”? Their degraded spirit has now invaded the whole GOP. By defending Trump’s transgressions, by justifying his abuses, Republicans are creating an atmosphere in which corruption and cowardice thrive.
How can this course be corrected? “You only have one political death,” said the late Rep. John Jacob Rhodes, R-Ariz., “but you can choose when to use it.” Larger showdowns — concerning the possible firings of special counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — now seem likely. If there is nothing for which Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders will risk their careers, there is nothing in which they truly believe.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.