When Donald Trump talked about "some very fine people" on both sides after the far-right rallies in Charlottesville, even Republicans in Washington thought he was going too far. Conservatives in Congress rushed in front of cameras and to their keyboards in droves to clarify that what the president had said was, of course, not representative of the party line. "We must be clear," House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote on Twitter that day. "[W]hite supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for."
This zeal is mostly gone now. These days, Trump can openly attack the FBI and the Justice Department and declare that these institutions are "a disgrace” and that staff should be ashamed. Conservatives who support these institutions are nowhere to be found. On the contrary, with the release of the memo that is meant to raise doubts about the motives behind the Russia investigations, Republicans have supplied their president with the ammunition for his attacks.* Ryan and his friends in the party ignored urgent requests by Democrats and officials to prevent the publication of the memo. After all, they only wanted to "[keep] our country safe."
Although it is dangerous, we have become used to Trump lashing out, regardless of the consequences, as soon as he is not met with unconditional approval. Because he has disliked the coverage, the president has attacked the media as fake news; when his politics were opposed at the Golden Globes or the Oscar nominations, he railed about the unworldly Hollywood elite; judges who have not passed sentences he likes are scorned, just like the football players who politicized America's favorite sport with their protests against police violence.
But events last week clearly demonstrated that, come what may, Republicans are getting very comfortable with their role as the president's front men. The fear of a vendetta initiated by the Trump base if Republicans criticize their man in the White House appears to be enormous. The prospect of short-term political success is very tempting. Who cares about the reputation of a handful of institutions when we are talking about tax breaks for companies? Following this strategy, conservatives pass one law after another and, as a precaution, close their eyes to the president dismantling democracy.
A Nightmare Threatening To Become a Reality
In doing so, they are also closing their eyes to the future. If the majority of voters accepts the image of a corrupt Secret Service and a politically motivated judiciary, then this will not just steal the thunder of the Robert Mueller investigation — a potentially welcome consequence. From now on, in cases where FBI staff provide evidence, it will be very easy to derail legitimate proceedings and raise doubt, in spite of facts that should speak for themselves.
Even Richard Nixon, who had few inhibitions about using the political system as a tool for retaining power, was troubled by such a scenario. But he limited his public attacks during the Watergate investigations to individuals within the FBI, while the institution itself remained off-limits. And even though Bill Clinton despised both Special Counsel Kenneth Starr and FBI Director Louis Freeh, he let them get on with their jobs at the height of the Monica Lewinsky affair because he knew that, in the end, the well-being of the country was more important than that of any current president.
But the old rules no longer apply. In the White House and in Congress, principles have been jettisoned and the nightmare scenario of the past is threatening to become today's reality. According to an opinion poll for Axios, the image of the FBI has suffered greatly in the last 12 months. This is mostly due to a change of opinion among Republicans. Even experts who quickly debunked the memo as an insubstantial political weapon can no longer get through to people. Other legitimate counter-arguments likewise are ignored: For example, if the FBI was targeting Trump, why did its investigators derail Hillary Clinton's campaign just before the election?
Legitimate doubt should be allowed even where institutions such as the FBI are concerned. But the Republicans, the self-declared party of law and order, have sacrificed the well-being of the country in favor of their personal goals, becoming willing accomplices in Trump's personal vendetta. Contrary to Ryan's claims, they made the institutions that are charged with protecting the country weaker, not safer.
*Editor’s note: The memo was written by staffers of Republican Representative Devin Nunes. It criticizes the FBI’s use of information obtained from former British MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele as a partial basis for obtaining a FISA warrant to investigate Trump adviser Carter Page, as part of the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.