Friday 20 April 2018

Republicans risk unwittingly sowing the seeds for Trump’s demise over his Russia links

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President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Paul Waldman

When Donald Trump became his party's nominee for president in 2016, the many Republicans who had reservations about him convinced themselves that the bargain they made could be fruitful for everyone. They'd stand by him despite the kind of person he is, and in return they'd get the policy results they were after.

Sure, from time to time they'd have to evade uncomfortable questions about his latest idiotic tweet or another woman (or five or 10) accusing him of sexual assault, but it would be worth it.

But it has turned out that Mr Trump demands more than they thought. They've signed on with a cult of personality, in which one goal supersedes all others: protect the president no matter what. In Congress, as CNN's Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb report, they're doing their part: "Top Republicans on Capitol Hill have made a concerted decision in their Russia inquiries: they are staying away from digging into the finances of President Donald Trump and his family.

"Six Republican leaders of key committees told CNN they see little reason to pursue those lines of inquiry or made no commitments to do so - even as Democrats say determining whether there was a financial link between Trump, his family, his business and Russians is essential to understanding whether there was any collusion in the 2016 elections. Republicans have resisted calls to issue subpoenas for bank records, seeking Trump's tax returns or sending letters to witnesses to determine whether there were any Trump financial links to Russian actors - calling the push nothing more than a Democratic fishing expedition."

They aren't saying that they've looked into the possibility of these ties and found there's nothing to them; they're saying they don't even want to look. This is a party that launched seven separate congressional investigations of Benghazi. It's enough to make you think they're afraid if they started poking around in Mr Trump's financial connections to Russia, they'd find that he's guilty of something. While it was always going to be tricky for this Congress to investigate the Russia scandal, the "investigations" are rapidly turning into a joke.

One of the odd things about the way Republicans have approached the entire Russia scandal is that there's a halfway plausible story they could tell about the 2016 election which wouldn't implicate Mr Trump but would still be at least somewhat consistent with what we know so far. It would say Russia was trying not to help Mr Trump so much as just to cause chaos in our election, and while the Russians certainly reached out to members of Mr Trump's family and campaign to engineer some kind of co-operation, it never amounted to much.

That account of events is extremely generous to everyone around Mr Trump. But at least it has a remote connection to some of the facts, enough to make it seem like the one telling that story would almost be acting in good faith. And it's a position some in the GOP have taken. The party as a whole, however, has adopted the "nothing to see, move along" position instead, which is likely a tactical mistake. If you're really clever, what you want to do is pretend you're eager to get to the bottom of the scandal while quietly sabotaging the investigation. But Republicans aren't even bothering to pretend. They've all but announced that for them there is no higher priority than protecting Mr Trump, not even the national security of the United States.

We can grant that it's always difficult for the party controlling Congress to investigate a president of that party. But this relentless stonewalling, not to mention the clownish antics of Devin Nunes and the other Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, is no doubt making the Democrats more and more exasperated. Why does that matter? Because if Democrats take control of the House in November, they are going to respond with, as the president may say, fire and fury.

Let's take, for example, the question of the president's tax returns, which he has insisted on keeping hidden despite the fact there has never been a president in American history whose tax returns the public had a more pressing interest in seeing. The CNN piece notes that Senator Ron Wyden has been asking to see those returns and "to obtain records about a lucrative 2008 real estate deal between Trump and a Russian billionaire that raised questions among Democrats about potential money laundering and suspect business dealings". Senator Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has refused, saying: "He doesn't want to give up his tax returns, and I believe he's right."

Now imagine that Democrats take the House. They would be able to release Mr Trump's returns by use of a little-used provision in the law, which allows the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, or the Joint Committee on Taxation, to request from the IRS any American's tax returns, including the president's. The chair could then share it with the rest of his or her committee, which could then vote to release the returns to all members of the chamber. Once 435 members of the House have Mr Trump's returns, they'd be public in about 12 seconds.

If Republicans had been making a good-faith effort to fully investigate the Russia scandal, they might be able to say in January 2019 to their newly empowered Democratic colleagues that releasing Mr Trump's returns against his wishes is a radical move that would set a bad precedent. It's possible they could win over a few Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee with that argument, just enough to stop the release, since Democrats are far more open to arguments about precedents and the long-term health of institutions. But after Republicans spent the first two years of the Trump presidency running roughshod over every norm in sight and making clear they only want to protect Trump, an appeal to norms and precedents will surely fall on deaf ears. To take just one example, if and when Adam Schiff is running the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes won't be able to say to him, "Let's make sure we investigate Russia in a bipartisan way" without Mr Schiff laughing in his face and going back to preparing his very large stack of subpoenas.

Might that have happened anyway, no matter how Republicans acted during the beginning of Trump's presidency? Maybe. But it's definitely going to happen now.

© The Washington Post

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