Donald Trump rightly reprimanded House Republicans on Tuesday for their move to disembowel the Office of Congressional Ethics, but let’s not be duped or dumb. This was like a crackhead dad fuming at his kids for smoking a little weed.
Their conduct hardly measured up to his, which obviously encouraged it. When they look at him, here’s what they see: a presidential candidate who broke with decades of precedent by refusing to release his tax returns and thus shine a light on his conflicts of interest. A president-elect who has yet to spell out how he would eliminate those conflicts – and who has, instead, repeatedly reminded reporters and voters that he’s under no explicit legal obligation to eliminate them at all. A plutocrat whose children have toggled back and forth between his government activities and his corporate interests, raising questions about the separation of the two.
Is it any wonder that House Republicans felt OK about trying to slip free of some of their own ethical shackles, no matter how ugly the optics?
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The story here isn’t what, specifically, they attempted to do. Nor is it their abandonment of the plan once the media gasped and their dear leader wagged his finger at them.
It’s the tone that Trump has set and the culture that he’s creating. He operates with an in-your-face defiance, so these House Republicans did, too. He puts his own desires and comfort first, so they reserved the right to do the same. With more than a few of his Cabinet picks, he demonstrated little sense of fidelity to what he promised voters and even less concern about appearances. House Republicans decided to treat themselves to a taste of that freedom.
In this instance, they were slapped down, though I sincerely doubt that they came away from the confrontation with the feeling that Trump had higher standards than they imagined. No, they just realized that he’s even more hypocritical and inconstant than they expected.
The Office of Congressional Ethics is no model operation. Democrats as well as Republicans have chafed at what some of them see as its occasional overzealousness and disregard for due process. Had House Republicans called for a bipartisan and transparent review of its role and tactics, they might not have encountered all that much resistance.
But that’s not what happened. In a secretive closed-door meeting late Monday, before the first official day of the new Congress, the House Republican Conference voted to diminish the office’s power and independence. This was dark-of-night, no-prying-eyes stuff, done over the objections of Paul Ryan, the House speaker, who could sense how disastrously it would play in the media.
After it played precisely that disastrously, Trump sent out two tweets Tuesday morning asking why House Republicans would take aim at the ethics office when there was so much other important work to do. House Republicans then dropped the plan.
The whole mess said a whole lot about the chaotic days to come. Although Ryan on Tuesday was re-elected to his leadership post, his grip on his caucus isn’t exactly a firm one. And the wires between Trump and House Republicans are evidently crossed.
For that matter, the wires between Trump and Kellyanne Conway are as well: Mere hours before he tweeted his disapproval of what the Republicans were doing, she appeared on “Good Morning America” and defended their actions as part of the “mandate” – her word, or rather hallucination – that they and Trump had received from voters to shake things up.
I suppose that gutting the ethics office would indeed qualify as a shake-up. But so would declaring Thursdays in the Senate to be clothing-optional or having the Rockettes perform during the State of the Union. Not all shake-ups are created equal.
And turning “mandate” into a mantra, which is a favorite Republican tactic right now, doesn’t turn it into a truth. There’s no mandate here, not when Hillary Clinton received roughly 3 million more votes than Trump did. Not when there are lingering questions about meddling that may have worked in Trump’s favor. Not when the Republicans’ majorities in the Senate and House just shrank. Not when their edge in the House owes more to gerrymandering than to any tidal wave of demonstrable enthusiasm for their agenda.
I’m not disputing the election results or Republicans’ right – heck, their obligation – to seize the reins of leadership. I’m arguing against the shamelessness of what they just tried to do with the ethics office.
And I’m pleading that Trump stop behaving in a way that sets the stage for it. The new Congress – the new Washington – will be no more or less swampy than its new top gator. Best that he wash away his own muck.