Opinion writer

Republicans fanned out on the Sunday shows, only to reveal how entirely unwilling they are to confront a president growing more unhinged by the day. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)  when asked about the need for legislation to anticipate Robert S. Mueller’s firing asserted, “I don’t see the president firing him. I think the White House has said ten times, maybe more, that they’re not going to fire Robert Mueller, they want him to be able to finish the investigation. So I — I don’t even think that’s going to be necessary, because the president’s not going to fire him.” What!? Trump’s lawyer over the weekend declared Mueller should close up shop; Trump himself went after Mueller in a Sunday tweet. (“The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime.”)

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) insisted that firing Mueller would be “the beginning of the end” of Trump’s presidency. But why would Trump believe that? Republicans have been too afraid to pass legislation protecting Mueller, and they have lamely accepted everything from the vengeful firing of former deputy director Andrew McCabe less than two days before his retirement to smears on the FBI to threats against former FBI director James B. Comey.

Republicans still refuse to be candid about what the investigation has already found and why Trump’s attacks on the FBI and special prosecutor are themselves evidence of “corrupt intent.” It would be nice if they called out Trump as, for example, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) did. “If they didn’t do anything wrong, why are they going to such extreme lengths to undermine this investigation, which is being carried out in a very responsible way? You have noticed there haven’t been many, if any leaks from the Mueller investigation, nonpolitical,” he said on “Face the Nation.” “They’re trying to get to the bottom of a very complicated set of facts. And anybody that says there’s nothing to it, well, they have already had three or four guilty pleas and 15 or 20 indictments. That tells me that there is something going on here, and there’s something serious.” Is it really so hard for GOP leaders to say something as obvious as that?

Instead we get these musings from GOP senators — who you’d never know had the power to restrain the president if only they put their minds to it. “I would hate to demoralize the workforce. And more importantly, I would hate to discourage new people from coming into that. So I just don’t like the whole tone,” Sen Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) complained on “Meet the Press.” He later said, “I think we need to be very careful about taking these very important entities and smearing everybody in them with a broad stroke.”

Gosh, might he directly admonish the president or offer legislation to protect Mueller? For now, Rubio seems unwilling to say flat out, “If Trump fires Mueller, that’s abuse of his office for which impeachment would be appropriate.” His job is not to offer punditry but to provide oversight and legislation as a co-equal branch of government. And it’s when it comes to Republicans’ real job in Congress that action is entirely absent. (Likewise, Rubio will offer an opinion about the need for a comprehensive response to Russia, but not criticize the president for refusing to deliver one. “There’s got to be a collective response to this. Vladimir Putin is a cost-benefit analyzer,” he said.)

Republicans no longer bother to conceal that their own inquiries have been fraudulent. Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) on “Meet the Press” couldn’t even offer an opinion on McCabe, saying he could not remember (!) if McCabe’s testimony to the committee backed up Comey’s accounts. Just days after putting out a report saying his committee found no evidence of collusion, he admitted, “We were focused not so much on that as the — because that feeds into the collusion issue. And, and our, our committee doesn’t — was not charged with answering the collusion idea.” Asked why in the world he would then announce they’d found no collusion, he meandered and just repeated that they didn’t find evidence of collusion (which they obviously were not looking for). It was as weak, confused and inept a performance by someone leading a critical House Intelligence Committee investigation as I have ever seen.

Alas, the candid Republicans these days are those leaving office. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) had this revealing exchange on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper:

TAPPER: The president’s lawyer John Dowd said in response to McCabe’s firing that the Justice Department should — quote — “follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to the alleged Russia collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss, James Comey” — unquote.

Again, there are a lot of factual misstatements in there, but let me ask you. You have already said, based on President Trump suggesting the Mueller probe should end, that you expect to see pushback.

I don’t know why you expect to see pushback, to be honest. I have been watching Congress now for the last year, and with the exception of you and maybe Ben Sasse and John McCain, I haven’t seen a lot of pushback from Republicans.

Do you really think that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will stand up and say, no, Mr. President, you can’t do this?

FLAKE: I hope so.

I mean, talking to my colleagues all along, it was, you know, once he goes after Mueller, then we will take action.

I think that people see that as a massive red line that can’t be crossed. So, I hope that that’s the case. And I would just hope that enough people would prevail on the president now, don’t go there. Don’t go there. We have confidence in Mueller. I certainly do.

And I think my colleagues do as well. So, I hope that the pushback is now to keep the president from going there.

He hopes. Well, I suspect he’ll be disappointed.

Voters should pay close attention to Republicans’ lack of candor, curiosity and spine in defending the Constitution and upholding their oversight obligations. On the House side, Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s refusal to put responsible people in charge of investigating the intelligence scandal will be a stain on his record. Over in the Senate, it’s long past time that Republicans stop commenting and observing from afar and start acting to defend the Justice Department, FBI and special prosecutor.

In the midterms, Democrats will have a strong case that Republicans are not up to the task of governing at a time they should be restraining and not enabling an unfit president.