House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 18. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

For those political watchers convinced that at some point Republicans will push back in meaningful ways against President Trump’s assault on democratic norms, today must be another downer. Once again, GOP “leaders” seek to normalize Trump, not combat the erosion of democratic institutions.

The Post reports:

[Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.) said [House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin] Nunes (R-Calif.) was following a well-established process when the committee voted Monday to release a GOP-drafted memo to the public, provided President Trump does not block its efforts within five days. The panel also voted to make a Democrat-drafted memo rebutting the GOP’s document available to House members to read in a secure facility, as the panel had done with the GOP memo 11 days earlier along party lines.

Ryan suggested to reporters Tuesday that “there may have been malfeasance at the FBI by certain individuals,” citing that as one of several reasons Republicans want “all of this information” contained in the memo “to come out.”

But of course the memo — designed to impugn the FBI and Justice Department — should not be used to discredit Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, Ryan adds. C’mon. That is exactly the aim and the likely result of releasing the Nunes memo, which has been widely denounced as misleading and unsupported by intelligence data. Ryan is releasing the hounds and telling them to go easy on their prey.

Ryan’s game is to avoid confronting Trump directly without appearing too eager to impugn the integrity of those investigating Trump. (That’s Nunes’s job.) (“Several Republicans and conservative pundits have seized on the memo as a reason to question the underpinnings and legitimacy of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s ongoing probe of alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. But on Tuesday, Ryan firmly warned people against drawing such links.” And Ryan is fully aware of this.) However, it’s fully within his power to protect the FBI and Justice Department and to preserve the frail relationship between the House Intelligence Committee and the intelligence community. Silence here is assent.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was no better. He took the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil approach. The Hill reports:

“My understanding is there’s no effort underway to undermine or to remove the special counsel. Therefore, I don’t see the need to bring up legislation to protect someone who appears to need no protection,” McConnell told reporters.

Asked what would happen if Trump tried to fire Mueller, McConnell said the question is a “hypothetical” and “as of right now I’m unaware of any effort, official effort, on the part of the White House to undermine the special counsel.”

This comes within days of reporting that Trump attempted to fire Mueller but was stopped by the White House counsel. Jack Goldsmith writes:

Every presidency since Watergate has embraced policies for preserving DOJ and FBI independence from the President in certain law enforcement and intelligence matters. These internal regulations and memoranda, and the norms they foster, acknowledge the President’s ultimate power and responsibility for law enforcement and intelligence while at the same time recognizing that in certain matters, the Executive branch needs internal divisions of authority that achieve a type of independence from presidential control. …

A related check on the President that has been developed and nurtured as a result of these post-Watergate regulations and practices are the cultural self-understandings of DOJ and FBI officials, including (many) political appointees. These men and women share a professional and departmental commitment to the rule of law, one component of which is resistance to politicized influence by the President on their operations.

As Trump methodically shreds the separation between partisanship — and in this case self-interested protection from prosecution or impeachment — and the apolitical administration of justice, Republicans in Congress look the other way. That has given Nunes running room to smear the FBI and the Justice Department, setting the pretext for Trump to avoid being interviewed and/or to fire investigators. According to one report, Trump is actually mulling the option of prosecuting Muller.

The consequences are serious. “Publication of the Nunes memorandum may skew our understanding of how the Russia investigation originated and was pursued, at least in the short term,” says Goldsmith. “And it will harm U.S. national security if it results in revelation of intelligence means and sources. I don’t want to understate the short-term and possibly medium-term damage that it might do in the current political environment.” Goldsmith is much more optimistic than I that something will check Nunes’s plot to upend the investigation, but I see no deus ex machina hovering over the scene.

I see a president no long concealing his effort to compromise national security for the sake of impeding an investigation into his conduct. I see a chief of staff eager to carry out the president’s assault on the Justice Department. I see GOP enablers who assist in tearing down the relations between the intelligence community and Congress in order to weaponize information in the president’s defense.

The utter passivity of Congress, the nothing-alarming-here tone of much of the news coverage even in mainstream media, the quietude of the legal community and the refusal of respectable conservatives to drop the “but Gorsuch …” defense of Trump and to stand up for the same principles of constitutional governance that they wielded against the prior administration mean there is no obvious break on the Trump-Nunes train.

Sure, the voters will have their say in November, but great damage to our democracy will be done in the interim. Republicans have the power but not the slightest inclination to restrain Trump, so until the majority changes in one or both houses, nothing will halt Trump’s quest to burn down the institutions of our democracy.