Flynn Scandal Magnifies Republican Divisions
The first day of fallout from the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn showed that the White House, Senate and House, all run by Republicans, are thoroughly out of sync.
The White House, where Flynn managed to hang on for weeks after it was known he had engaged in what appears to have been inappropriate communications with a Russian ambassador, is divided against itself. Within hours of Flynn's resignation, Breitbart News, home base of White House ideologist Stephen Bannon, had published an attack on White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, blaming Priebus for the deluge of leaks that plague President Donald Trump.
Given Trump's chaotic insecurities, and longstanding habit of pitting subordinates against one another, the White House team is unlikely to be cohesive soon -- or possibly ever.
The Republican reaction in Congress is beginning to chart its own meandering course, with House members generally defending the White House, while some senators grumble about the need for investigation. The shoddy public explanations of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sean Spicer failed to answer the basic questions about the Flynn affair, including: Why did the president fire someone several weeks after learning of his firing offense? And only after details were leaked to the news media?
The muddled excuses of Conway and Spicer only confirmed that there is something very wrong with the White House story. It will most likely be exposed sooner or later, and House members hope later. Much later.
“The big problem I see here is that you have an American citizen who had his phone calls recorded," said Representative Devin Nunes of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. In other words, what's piqued Nunes's curiosity is the possibility that Flynn's privacy was violated.
Nunes has company. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was a permanent fishing expedition during Barack Obama's presidency. Chairman Jason Chaffetz even vowed -- after the election -- to investigate Hillary Clinton for the umpteenth time. But Chaffetz said there's no need to investigate Flynn's Russian dealings because "it's taking care of itself." (Chaffetz, who has been widely mocked for hypocrisy, announced later that he would look into possible security breaches at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club.)
Likewise, Speaker Paul Ryan said, "I’m not going to prejudge any of the circumstances surrounding this until we have all of the information." Then he seemed to leave it up to the White House, which has been unable to keep its story straight, to provide the information.
Compare that with the Senate, where Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said, "I think that we should look into it exhaustively so that at the end of this process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned."
Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with Blunt, said of the Flynn situation: "Obviously there’s a lot of concern on my part."
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has regularly signaled his unease with Trump's affection for Russia, told CNN, "I want to know, did General Flynn do this by himself or was he directed by somebody to do it?" (Someone, presumably, like his boss, the president.)
Senator John McCain got multiple licks in, issuing a statement lamenting Trump's dysfunctional National Security Council and saying that "Flynn’s resignation also raises further questions about the Trump administration’s intentions toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia."
The disparity between the House and Senate GOP is partly institutional, partly political.
Congressional scholar Sarah Binder of George Washington University and the Brookings Institution wrote, via e-mail, "House Republicans represent more homogeneous House districts where Trump remains popular." She continued:
Senators -- even Republicans -- are just more insulated from the president. Their states are often more diverse -- giving some senators an incentive to think more broadly about electoral support back home. And staggered elections matter still -- even in a period of unified GOP control. Republican senators just elected -- John McCain, for example -- will never again run on the same ballot as Trump. Next year's crop (e.g. Heller, Flake), also will never run on a ticket with Trump. Only the third up for re-election in 2020 face the prospects of running with Trump. And that's LIGHT YEARS away in political time. That electoral distance just affords senators more independence on issues on which they want to distance themselves from the Trump White House. Entanglements with the Russians seem high on the list of "easy" and yet existentially important issues on which to take a stand.
The craven response of House members is also a reminder of how readily politics can warp supple characters. Who knows? Perhaps more House members would genuinely like to get to the bottom of the Russia business. But first they'd like to get elected to the Senate.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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