The revelations of the past two weeks put Republicans in new and far more uncomfortable territory, but little has changed so far in their posture toward the president. They are doing all they can to keep their heads down, showing once again the degree to which the president has cowed the Grand Old Party.
First it was the reports by the media, starting with The Washington Post and then by others, about the existence of a whistleblower’s complaint charging Trump with using his office to ask a foreign leader to attack a political rival.
Then it was the memorandum detailing the July 25 telephone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the president sought help — “a favor” — in finding hacked servers and later suggested Ukraine undertake an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who for a time sat on the board of a Ukrainian company that had come under scrutiny.
Then came additional explosive allegations, contained in a whistleblower’s complaint released on Thursday, as Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, was preparing to testify on Capitol Hill.
The complaint offered a well-documented description of events over a period of months, including the July 25 phone call, that pointed to a pressure campaign by the president, aided by others, on the newly elected Zelensky. The whistleblower document also raised the issue of a coverup by White House officials determined to conceal the contents of the call.
At the end of the week, The Post reported that, in a 2017 Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Trump had said he was not concerned about Russian interference in the 2016 election because the United States did the same in other countries.
When the first news reports surfaced more than a week ago, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) tweeted that, if the accounts were accurate, it “would be troubling in the extreme. Critical for the facts to come out.” He was the exception among Republican elected officials. Since the release of the whistleblower complaint and the memorandum of Trump’s phone call, Romney has kept his views about the road ahead to himself.
As more information has become public, Republicans have generally ducked questions from reporters, or defended the president. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), have attacked Democrats on the panel. Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Republican, accused Democrats of seeking to trap Maguire into criticizing the president. As Trump has attacked the Democrats, the general silence from Republican elected officials was impossible to ignore.
There are some reasons Republicans have held back, even if they are troubled by what the president has done. The whistleblower’s complaint, as shocking as its contents are, is simply allegations that have yet to be fully investigated and corroborated.
Democrats do run the risk of leaping to conclusions before all the facts are known. That is a lesson from the investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team on the question of collusion with the Russians. Though there were multiple contacts and a willingness on the part of the Trump team to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton, Mueller’s report said there was not clear evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
The onus now is on the Democrats to conduct a thorough investigation. An impeachment proceeding is not a cable television show. The purpose of the inquiry is to determine whether there are valid grounds to draw up articles of impeachment.
Republican elected officials are reluctant to give any additional oxygen to Democratic efforts to bring down the president, whether through the electoral process or otherwise. Many of them say Democrats will use any means available to go after the president and do not want Republican rank and file to see them as sympathetic in any way to those efforts. In a polarized political environment, there is safety in staying within the family, private feelings aside.
So Republicans can hold back on the question of whether the president should be impeached and removed from office for what he has done. By doing so, they can avoid being subjected to a firestorm of criticism touched off by conservative talk radio or television personalities.
That, however, does not legitimize how Republicans are reacting and responding. They owe loyalty to their party, but elected representatives have a dual responsibility, which is to balance the party’s demands with an obligation to help set national standards. Whether the president should be impeached is not the only question on the table at this moment.
On the basis of what is known — from the memorandum of the July 25 phone call, from what the president has said about what he said in that phone call and from the allegations contained in the whistleblower’s complaint — Republican elected officials will be fairly asked to say whether the president has met the accepted standards of the office, not whether he should be impeached but whether they find his conduct acceptable.
This is not a question of whether the president should stop tweeting or refrain from nasty attacks on his rivals. Trump’s decision to pressure a foreign leader to help undermine a potential 2020 challenger is in an entirely different category. That is why executive branch officials who listened to the phone call or were later privy to its contents found it so disquieting — and why some took steps to hide it, according to the whistleblower’s complaint.
Democrats will have to make the case as to why they think the president should be impeached and removed from office and try to persuade the public why that step is necessary, if that is where their work leads. But Republicans cannot hide from this, even if they regard impeachment as unwarranted.
Right now, through their collective silence, Republicans are telling the American people they either tolerate or condone the president’s actions. The longer they remain silent, the more they contribute to normalizing behavior by the president that is far beyond past standards.