The comparisons between the investigation into Russia’s nefarious involvement in the 2016 presidential election and Watergate aren’t perfect, but there are important lessons Republicans can learn from the latter. We don’t yet know whether anyone in the Trump campaign, knowingly or unknowingly, assisted the Russians in their effort to disrupt the democratic process, but we do know that President Donald Trump is obsessed with stopping a thorough investigation into the matter. His latest ham-fisted effort was to fire FBI Director James Comey a week after Comey testified on the matter.
Trump apparently thought Comey’s firing would be greeted with applause from both sides of the political aisle. He was disastrously wrong. Whether his actions were motivated by an intent to cover up wrongdoing or simply to get an unflattering story about his campaign off the front pages, we don’t yet know. But even the more generous interpretation should set off alarms in GOP circles. The road to Watergate started with a presidential preoccupation with bad news coverage and ended up with obstruction of justice.
Reports of what went on in the West Wing the week prior to Comey’s firing are deeply disturbing. According to dozens of White House staff members and associates of the president who had contact with him during the week, President Trump could not let go of his anger over the Russia investigation. In a week that might be seen as one of his best — the House passed an unlikely health care overhaul that he supported, his first major legislative achievement — the president was yelling at the television, calling friends to vent his anger and generally fuming over Comey’s testimony on Russian efforts to sway the election. He tweeted that the “Trump-Russia collusion story is a total hoax” the night before firing Comey. The picture is of a man unhinged, willing to take reckless action — and, most importantly, with no one around him who could dissuade him from his most destructive impulses.
Comey’s firing will not end the Russia investigation. I would argue that it may well invigorate it.
And given the president’s mindset and personality, we can expect him to ramp up his efforts to shut it down unless members of his own party intervene directly and forcefully. The congressional committees investigating Russian intervention need more resources, as may the FBI. But those resources haven’t been forthcoming, because the GOP leadership isn’t all that eager to find answers.
Trump has succeeded in corrupting much of the Republican Party. Many Republicans seem afraid of Trump and Trump’s base — though given Trump’s plummeting approval ratings, it’s unclear why. The window is closing for Republicans to step up. If they won’t do it publicly (only a small handful have criticized the Comey firing openly), they need to do so in direct confrontation with the president.
Members of Congress from the president’s own party need to tell the president unequivocally that he needs to shut up about the Russia investigation. No more tweets. No more midnight calls to old friends. No more ranting and raving to staff. No more yelling at the TV. No more interjecting the subject into other discussions. No more campaign rallies to stoke grievances about news media coverage. He needs to express confidence in the processes of our criminal justice system to get the investigation right. He needs to express confidence in the coequal branches of government to engage in their proper investigatory roles and get to the truth.
If Republicans won’t stop the president from the path he’s on, he will not only destroy his own presidency but also bring the party down around him. No one in Donald Trump’s world has ever said no to him. Clearly, no one on his staff is willing to do so. The American people will get their chance in 2020 — if he lasts that long and is still interested in the job, which is a whole lot harder and less rewarding than he anticipated. In the meantime, congressional Republican leaders need to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to deliver this message: No more lies, no more conspiracy theories, no more rabble-rousing. Keep your eye focused on governing, and forget vendettas. Respect the separation of powers, or pay the consequences when Congress finally has had enough.