WASHINGTON – Let the record reflect that on July 12, 2017, at a few minutes after 10 a.m. Eastern daylight time, the lights went out on the Republican Party.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan and fellow House Republican leaders had just finished their caucus meeting and were beginning a news conference. The House Republican Conference chair, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, was announcing new legislation to combat human trafficking. “We made a promise – “ she said. And then the room went dark.
“Whoops! Did I step on it?” she asked, looking at her feet for an electrical cord. Presently, the lighting rekindled. “Now, if we could pay the light bills,” she resumed.
The metaphor alert level has just been raised to red.
The latest revelation in the Putin palooza – that Donald Trump Jr., along with Jared Kushner and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, eagerly met last year with a person promising dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government – brings the sprawling scandal to a new level. Surely Republican leaders will move with dispatch to disavow Team Trump’s behavior?
But each time President Trump hits a new low – a racist outburst, a vulgar tweet, shabby treatment of women – commentators invariably state that this one will be the tipping point, the time when Republicans bail on the man who is undermining their party, and conservatism, and American values. Each time, such expectations meet the same fate: Wrong!
And this time, sure enough, the Silence of the Republicans has been profound.
On the House’s first morning back from the July 4 recess, five GOP leaders took turns making statements before the microphones, and there wasn’t a single mention of Trump, or of the Russian monster devouring their legislative agenda. Ryan (Wis.) waited to be asked the question, by CNN’s Deirdre Walsh, and provided a prepared non-answer.
Ryan, omitting mention of Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting, said he would leave it to the “professionals” investigating the matter to “do their jobs.”
But Ryan is a professional – he’s the most senior Republican in Congress – and he isn’t doing his job. At least he isn’t if his job is to protect his party (hurt by association with Trump), his policy agenda (bottled up because of Trump’s troubles) or the institutions of the government he represents.
No doubt Republican leaders and backbenchers alike are afraid – not of Trump but of the 25 percent or so of Americans who support Trump strongly and who also happen to be many of the people who dominate Republican primaries and show up to vote in midterm elections. By the time these voters peel away from Trump, it may be too late to rescue the party, or the country.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was no braver. On Tuesday, McConnell (R-Ky.) was pressed four times about his confidence in Trump and his thoughts on Trump Jr. Four times, he responded with a variation of the same answer: “What I have a lot of confidence in is the Intelligence Committee handling this whole investigation.”
In the Senate, only a few Republicans have criticized Trump, among them Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who observed to the Weekly Standard that “another shoe drops from the centipede every few days.” In the House, there have been even fewer (although Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York labeled Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian “a big no-no”).
Republicans abandoning Trump tend to be those who don’t answer to voters. Congressman-cum-MSNBC host Joe Scarborough told Stephen Colbert on Tuesday that he was quitting the GOP over officials’ refusal to disown Trump. “What have you heard from Republican leaders today?” Scarborough asked. “Nothing. There’s always silence.”
Alas, Scarborough didn’t object to Trump when it could have done the most good, in the early months of the campaign. His show, “Morning Joe,” boosted Trump’s candidacy with chummy coverage and free airtime in the form of friendly call-in interviews. My colleague Erik Wemple wrote at the time that the show veered from “journalism into the friendly confines of a morning social club.” After Trump won the New Hampshire primary, the candidate thanked Scarborough and his colleagues, calling them “supporters,” then “believers.”
Democratic leaders remarked Wednesday on the silent majority. If the situation were reversed, Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (Calif.) said, “they’d be screaming to the rafters about the need for prosecutions.”
“Firing squads,” added Rep. Joseph Crowley, the House Democratic Caucus chairman from New York. “All we’re hearing right now is crickets.”
Crickets – and a centipede that keeps dropping shoes.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.