Republican reckoning: Rule of law or rule of Trump?

From l-r., Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., meet with reporters to announce the Republicans' proposed rewrite of the tax code for individuals and corporations, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017.

From l-r., Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., meet with reporters to announce the Republicans' proposed rewrite of the tax code for individuals and corporations, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Yogi Berra reputedly said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The Republicans on Capitol Hill can only wish it were that easy to choose indecision.

Now that Trump sleuth Robert Mueller has served up two accused criminals and one confessed criminal — with the likelihood of many more in the months to come — Republicans have reached an historic reckoning. They must choose which fork to take. They must decide whether to do their jobs, in the name of democracy and accountability, or to become cheerleaders for authoritarianism.

They must choose, in the words of ex-Republican foreign policy adviser Max Boot, “whether they are loyal to the rule of law or the rule of Trump.”

What will they do if or when Trump goes full banana republic — firing Mueller (or making a concerted effort), pardoning his accused criminals, preemptive-pardoning himself, essentially declaring that he’s exempt from all laws and therefore he can never be guilty of obstructing justice? If they don’t grow spines now, before the worst happens, it will be too late by the time it happens.

David Frum, the conservative thinker and ex-George W. Bush senior aide, sought yesterday to address Republicans and issue a dire warning: “Events are about to start moving very fast, and if you miss this moment, you will find yourself carried along by those events to places where it is not healthy for you to travel … You may think you are biding your time. In reality, you will find that you have preemptively surrendered to an internal takeover.”

But alas, profiles in cowardice Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have been hunkering in the bunker, saying virtually nothing about Mueller’s strong opening salvos. Ryan bobbed and weaved on a radio show: “I really don’t have anything to add, other than nothing’s going to derail what we’re doing in Congress.” (Translation: “I refuse to confront this authoritarian moment. Tax cuts for our rich donors uber alles!“) As for McConnell, he showed up Monday for a press conference on judicial nominations, but ducked out a rear door, behind the flags, before the press could ask him to comment on the Mueller probe. He has stayed ever since in his turtle shell.

By last reported count, only 15 of 52 Republican senators have said a word. That tally includes the hapless Marco Rubio, who repeatedly and rightly warned in ’16 that Trump was a clear and present danger, but who’s now insisting that Paul Manafort’s indictment is no big deal because Manafort’s bad deeds happened before he ran Trump’s campaign.

Number one, that’s a lie; the indictment clearly states that Manafort’s bad deeds (money laundering, tax evasion) continued while he worked for Trump. Number two, Rubio and his mum colleagues should at minimum muster the courage to ask why Trump didn’t discover (or care about) Manafort’s sleazy past before hiring him as campaign chair. Was there no vetting at all?

And if they were minimally interested in checking and balancing a potential runaway executive, they’d draw a line in the sand and move to protect Mueller via legislation. One Senate bill that’s been floating around for awhile — with no momentum behind it — would mandate that a special counsel can only be fired if a three-judge panel finds “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause.” But Republicans basically say there’s no urgency because Trump hasn’t done anything yet — which is like saying there’s no need for emergency preparedness because the hurricane hasn’t hit yet.

In the immortal words of Mitch McConnell, who lives in fear of Trump’s lash, “We’ve got plenty of things we have to do between now and the end of the year that will take up floor time in the Senate.” It’s pathetic to see this level of subservience to a guy with a 34 percent Gallup approval rating, by far the lowest of any president at the nine-month mark. It’s tragic to see a political party collude in this fashion, tilting drip by drip toward the kind of autocracy that Trump conspirator Vladimir Putin enforces by diktat in Russia.

At this point, the GOP is behaving like Franz von Papen, the powerful conservative German politician who helped pave the way for Hitler. And no, I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler. I’ll say it in italics: He is not Hitler. He is, however, the closest thing we’ve had to an authoritarian, the kind of lawless demagogue that the Founders worried about and sought to fortify the legislature against.

In 1932, Papen was thirsting for a share of power and figured that Hitler would be a useful and controllable tool. When one of his allies warned that the whole scheme would end badly for everyone, Papen replied: “In two months we’ll have pushed Hitler so far into the corner that he’ll squeal.” But within months, Papen was reduced to a neutered poodle. Years later, the historian Gerhard Weinberg targeted Papen and his fellow conservatives for their miscalculations and cowardice:  “The incredibly low intellectual and political level of most of those who thought they might restrain Hitler … rarely put Hitler’s abilities to any severe test.”

Unless Republicans rise to the occasion in this moment of reckoning, future historians will likely be no kinder.

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