The secret meeting when House Republicans put Russia first

     Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., followed by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., finishes a news conference at Republican National Committee Headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Ryan said Congress

    Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., followed by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., finishes a news conference at Republican National Committee Headquarters in Washington, Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Ryan said Congress "can't deal with speculation and innuendo" and must gather all relevant information before "rushing to judgment" on President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    The Trump-Russia scandal news has been hurtling toward us with the force of a runaway 18-wheeler, but one particular gem this week warrants a tad more attention. I’m referring to the private meeting, in June ’16, when Paul Ryan shut down House Republican talk about Trump’s ties to Russia.

    This sickening story — an American patriot leaked the secret recording to The Washington Post — is by no means this week’s biggest revelation. Trump’s leaking of Israeli intel to Russians in the Oval Office is way bigger. Trump’s hiring of Michael Flynn despite knowing that Flynn was under federal investigation is bigger. The newly unearthed fact that the Trump campaign had at least 18 previously undisclosed contacts with the Russians is bigger. The new details of Trump’s repeated efforts to lean on James Comey are bigger.

    But the recording of the House Republican meeting — in private, on June 15, 2016 — lays bare the moral bankruptcy of the GOP, and its craven indulgence of an imminent presidential nominee whose ties to Vladimir Putin were manifestly suspicious. The Republican leaders knew in their gut that Trump was a bad actor, but they shut themselves down and, in so doing, they betrayed this country.

    At the time of that June ’16 meeting, there was already abundant reporting that Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort had financial links to Putin-owned politicians in Ukraine. The day before the meeting, The Post reported that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee. Just hours before the meeting, Paul Ryan and top lieutenant Kevin McCarthy were briefed about the Kremlin’s attempts to destabilize democracies by aiding “populist” candidates.

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    Any Republican with an ounce of awareness could’ve easily connected the dots and voiced concern that Trump might be a threat to America’s security. Indeed, the recording shows that Kevin McCarthy at least tried. Referring as well to Dana Rohrabacher, a Putin-friendly congressman, McCarthy said during the meeting: 

    “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”

    People in the room laughed. McCarthy added: “Swear to God.”

    Paul Ryan immediately stepped in to shut the dialogue down: “This is an off the record … NO LEAKS! … All right? This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

    He was seconded by one of his deputies, Steve Scalise: “That’s how you know that we’re tight.”

    Ryan again: “What’s said in the family stays in the family.”

    Echoes of Michael Corelone in Las Vegas! “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” Because that dialogue from the June ’16 meeting perfectly captures what the Republican party has become — a tribal cult that snuffs dissent in the name of loyalty.The party has no higher value. Forget about America First, this is Family First.

    And when you put Family First, you lie to outsiders in order to protect the family. Earlier this week, when The Post asked Republican flacks to comment on McCarthy’s exchanges with Ryan in the meeting, they got the standard denials. A McCarthy spokesman said: “The idea that McCarthy would assert [a Trump-Putin link] is absurd and false.” A Ryan spokesman said of the exchanges: “That never happened.”

    But here’s where things got delicious: The Post reporter then told the flacks that the paper had a recording of what was actually said. Whereupon the Ryan spokesman rebounded from his lie to instantly spin Plan B: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor … This was a failed attempt at humor.”

    (Whenever these guys get caught red-handed, they try the “humor” line. When reports circulated that President Obama had personally urged Trump not to hire Flynn, Republican apologists insisted that Obama had just been kidding. Earlier this week, when we learned that Trump had asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn, Republican apologists said that, nah, Trump wasn’t really being serious.)

    But the worst aspect of that June ’16 meeting is the House leaders’ willingness to put Russia First. Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin points out:

    “The issue is not whether Trump was actually receiving rubles from the Kremlin. McCarthy and his fellow Republicans betray in this episode both a recognition of the degree to which Trump was behaving as Putin’s lapdog, and their own lack of seriousness about a nominee who, if elected, would pose a threat to the United States’ national security. The glib, cavalier treatment of a potential national security threat reveals a level of immaturity and irresponsibility that we do not expect from elected officials, especially those in top leadership roles.”

    Alas, this is what we have come to expect. Unlike the conservative establishment in France — which stood tall against Marine Le Pen and her ties to Russia, thus contributing to her presidential election defeat — Paul Ryan and his minions muzzled their concerns in favor of a Faustian pact. They pinched their noses to avoid the stench — and even today, amidst all the revelations, their cowardice persists.

    The people who once preached “family values” have been reduced to “what’s said in the family stays in the family.” The damage they’ve done to America will take years to tally.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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