It is a new low for the leadership, and one that could do lasting harm to the nation.
Cravenness in the Republican leaders' response to Donald Trump is nothing new. During the presidential campaign, few stood up to his nativism and ugly ethnic slurs. Since he became president, even fewer have stood by their previous commitments to U.S. leadership abroad and fiscal responsibility at home. As he has trampled long-established norms, such as releasing annual tax returns, we've heard not a peep from the Article I branch.
But this moment is different. Republicans have embarked on a smear campaign of the FBI that can end only in a dangerous erosion of trust in law enforcement, the subjugation of law enforcement to partisan interests or both. For Republican leaders — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.), Vice Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference Roy Blunt (Mo.) — to remain silent is to be complicit.
These men could, tomorrow, end this nonsense of secret societies, phony memos and missing text messages and let professionals such as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III do their jobs. Instead, they are allowing Fox News personalities, the president and loose cannons such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (Wis.) to turn the United States into a country where law enforcement becomes another pawn in the partisan war.
Mr. Johnson irresponsibly recycles nonsense about corruption "at the highest levels of the FBI," offering no evidence because of course there is none. Mr. Nunes abuses his access to classified information as Intelligence Committee chairman, a title Mr. Ryan long ago should have revoked, to manufacture dark conspiracies.
"We learned today about information that in the immediate aftermath of his election, there may have been a 'secret society' of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI . . . working against [Mr. Trump]," Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) says.
Then he adds: "I'm not saying that actually happened."
No matter; the purpose is achieved. Doubts are planted, and a share of the country will discount anything federal law enforcement says about Mr. Trump.
These men are destroying something that won't be easily recovered: faith in the idea of impartial law enforcement. It amounts to an assault on the rule of law. Mr. Trump openly wishes for an attorney general who will protect him, asks law enforcement officials whom they voted for, and fires or attempts to fire those he deems disloyal. He does not believe that FBI agents or anyone else is motivated by public- spiritedness or respect for the law, only by self- interest and personal loyalty to his or some other clan.
If Mr. Ryan, Mr. McConnell and others continue in their acquiescence, his cynical view may come closer to reality.