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Republicans Protecting Trump? Actually, It's Worse

It's difficult to see how the Comey memos help Trump, easier to see how they help hardcore conservatives pushing for their release.

Investigating the investigators.

Image: Bloomberg TV

Are Republicans in Congress providing cover for President Donald Trump in his struggles against the Russia investigation, as Matt Yglesias writes, "in exchange" for his acquiescence on orthodox conservative legislation? Perhaps. But another explanation is just as likely and completely aligned with the Republican Party we've known for years. 

The Trump era has changed a lot of things in Washington, but House Republicans have behaved in a remarkably familiar way, given their split between mainstream conservatives and radical ones which dates back even before the Tea Party's rise at the beginning of the Obama administration. The Freedom Caucus took things several steps further, helping to convince House Speaker John Boehner to retire in 2015. Here's how he described those lawmakers in Vanity Fair last year:

They can't tell you what they're for. They can tell you everything they're against. They're anarchists. They want total chaos. Tear it all down and start over. That's where their mindset is.

In an era when the Republican Party has almost universally adopted very conservative positions, it's difficult to establish oneself as a True Conservative on policy grounds alone. Style becomes crucial. Before Trump, that seemed to explain such things as shutting down the government and brinkmanship over the debt limit. During the Trump years, purists opposed appropriations bills that the rest of their party agreed on, essentially handing Democrats leverage they wouldn't otherwise have.

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It's also mattered to investigations. During the Obama administration, it meant dragging out the Benghazi hearings for two and a half years, among other overhyped inquiries. And now, it's investigating the investigators and attempting to turn their party against the FBI. 

In a way, this is worse than merely seeking to protect Trump by placing party above the nation's interests. By continuing down this path, these House Republicans are placing their True Conservative goal above the party, its president, and the national interest. 

Eleven of them are urging the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, James Comey, and a bunch of other people. Their reasoning, let's just say, is specious. At the same time, three House chairs and other House Republicans pressured Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to release Comey's memos. This is almost certainly not legitimate congressional oversight, as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent detailed; it's simply a means of interfering with the Mueller investigation. This is more of the same from the folks, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of fast-to-fizzle #releasethememo controversy.

Everyone is assuming that in doing this, the House radicals are seeking to protect Trump. But it's very possible that they are seeking a Saturday Night Massacre type event for their own reasons. How did the release of the Comey memos help Trump, for instance? They certainly burnished the reputation of Nunes to the strong conservatives who might help him overcome a surprisingly competitive re-election campaign -- both through national fundraising and district support:

It's hard to tell the difference between protecting Trump and pushing him towards a potentially grave confrontation for other reasons. But if what many House Republicans are doing is playing the True Conservative game, then we should expect them to seek out procedural maneuvers that will split the House Republican conference. If we think about it that way, then goading Trump into taking acts that would force an impeachment confrontation makes a lot of sense, at least in terms of achieving their goals.

It's not just the House radicals, either. For Republican-aligned media, a Republican presidency is a problem: Partisans are more easily motivated by dislike of an opposite-party incumbent. Impeachment, or even confrontation short of impeachment, is a logical (if dysfunctional) solution. Just in terms of maintaining ratings, clicks, and book sales, conservative media is likely to prefer any Republican president to court serious controversy. Impeachment would work just fine. 1  And we know that both House radicals and Fox News on-air folks have quite a bit of influence with this president.

The potential cure for all of this is for mainstream conservatives in both the House and the Senate to stand up and fight for their own long-term interests, even at the risk of taking some heat from the radicals and their supporters in the short run.

A lot of Republicans in Congress, particularly in the Senate, have cautioned Trump against acting against Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But they aren't willing to push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring a bill to the Senate floor that would protect the investigation. Over on the House side, they aren't willing to push back against Nunes and others who are egging Trump on. The truth, however, is that none of it appears to be working very well for them. And it could be even worse if Trump takes the bait.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. As several pundits have pointed out, the "neutral" media also would likely do quite well if Trump fired Mueller and tried to shut down the investigation -- and it is true that many in the media have repeatedly, and so far inaccurately, proclaimed that a confrontation is imminent. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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