Mitch McConnell is no Howard Baker.
Baker, the late Republican senator from Tennessee and GOP Senate leader in the 1970s and 1980s, became a profile in courage when he put country above party during the Watergate investigation, famously asking, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
McConnell, who now occupies the high office Baker once held, had a chance Wednesday for his Baker moment. The night before, President Donald Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, the man overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the election with potential Trump campaign collusion. Even many Republicans were aghast at the clumsy, Nixonian move that was plainly aimed at shutting down the probe.
Forty-five of 48 Democrats were at their desks Wednesday morning on the Senate floor, which was gravely silent – a measure of the gravity of the moment. Several Republicans were there, too. McConnell rose – and spoke about “Honor Flights” for veterans. He then furnished more complaints about Obamacare. Then, by way of afterthought, he added a few words on the stunning events of Tuesday night.
“What we have now,” he argued, is “our Democratic colleagues complaining about the removal of an FBI director whom they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized.” McConnell went on to argue that a new investigation “could only serve to impede the current work being done” to investigate the Russian interference.
Right. So calls for a more vigorous investigation would … impede the investigation. And people who previously criticized Comey can’t complain about the extremely suspicious manner in which he was fired. By that logic, those who criticized Abraham Lincoln’s military strategy were hypocritical to condemn John Wilkes Booth for shooting him.
McConnell’s small-mindedness would be funny if the situation weren’t so grave. This is a serious threat, not to Republicans but to America. A leading adversary successfully intervened in a presidential election – possibly with the collusion of the victor. And the man leading the investigation, who just last week asked for more resources for the probe, was instead fired by the man he asked (new deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein), quite likely on the president’s instructions.
There have been reports that grand-jury subpoenas were ready to fly, and public testimony raised new suspicions of collusion. We also know that Trump refused to take action when told his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was compromised with the Russians – until the matter blew up publicly. We also know that the firing (and now replacement) of the FBI director is under the auspices of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is supposed to be recused from the Russia probe because of his own Russia contacts.
And look at the man McConnell is protecting. Russophile Trump surrounded himself on the campaign with men tied to Russia: Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone, Flynn. And on Wednesday morning, the day after firing Comey, Trump gave a new display of his Russia-friendly ways. He sat down in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and banned the U.S. media from the session; the only “media” present, apparently, was Tass, the Russian state-owned news agency, which published photos of the meeting.
During Watergate, there were many Republicans who bravely stood up to Nixon. Rep. Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, father of the current governor; Rep. M. Caldwell Butler of Virginia; Attorney General Elliot Richardson; Sens. Hugh Scott (Pa.) and Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) and others earned places of honor in history for that.
There are some who have the potential to play that role now. Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said the timing and reasoning of the firing don’t make sense, and he invited Comey to testify. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) has called for a select committee to investigate and Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) for an independent commission. Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and James Lankford (Okla.), and a couple of others, have raised questions.
Will they, like their predecessors 40-odd years ago, be able to recognize that Trump’s action Tuesday night and McConnell’s mindless defense of it are more a danger to country than to party?
As Democrats thundered about the need for a special prosecutor, Republicans quietly expressed unease and White House officials fabricated facts to justify Trump’s actions, the president took to Twitter. “When things calm down,” he wrote, everybody “will be thanking me.”
Sergei Lavrov and the Russians may thank Trump. But in America things won’t “calm down” – they can’t calm down – unless a few brave Republicans find the courage to set this right.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.