At the Campaign for American Progress’s Ideas 2017 conference in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, one idea was clearly most popular, and it came from Representative Maxine Waters. “We don’t have to be afraid to use the word ‘impeachment!’ We don’t have to think that impeachment is out of our reach.” The unraveling presidency of Donald Trump, she argued, would show “Maxine Waters was right. You gotta impeach him.” She left the stage to a standing ovation.
That was an hour before The New York Times delivered the latest blow to Trump, reporting that the president asked former FBI director James Comey to close his investigation into former national-security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump allegedly told Comey. “He’s a good guy.” Comey memorialized the conversation in a memo; associates who had copies of the memo read parts of them aloud to the Times and other news outlets. (Those sources also say Comey filed memos about every encounter he had with the president.)
The Trump administration seems to be hurtling toward disaster, but congressional Republicans are still unwilling to put on the brakes. “It’s obvious there are some people out there who want to harm the president,” House Speaker Paul Ryan declared Wednesday morning, adding that if Comey’s story is true, “why didn’t he do something at the time?” Ryan’s cynicism is stunning; his first thought is to defend Trump from “people out there who want to harm” him? The person who’s doing the most to hurt Trump is Trump himself.
Last week, we were marveling at the blockbuster revelations that rolled out between Monday and Friday. First, former deputy attorney general Sally Yates testified in Congress about warning the administration of Flynn’s talks with Russian officials during the transition. On Tuesday Trump fired Comey, supposedly over Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe. By Thursday, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he decided to fire Comey, at least partly because of “this Russia thing.” Friday morning Trump threatened Comey on Twitter, sounding like a mobster, warning he “better hope” there are no “‘tapes’” of their meetings.
This week looks to be just as turbulent, with Monday’s Washington Post revelation that Trump shared highly classified information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, followed by Tuesday’s shocking story that he tried to get Comey to drop his Flynn probe. (For what it’s worth, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied that Trump revealed classified information to his foreign minister, and offered to provide transcripts of their meeting. But Putin’s coming to Trump’s aid right now doesn’t seem particularly helpful.) Evidence that Trump obstructed justice—from asking Comey to drop the investigation, to firing Comey, to appearing to threaten the former FBI director—is getting hard to ignore.
White House officials pushed back on the Comey memo story as they always do, with rapidly shifting stories. First they claimed the talk Comey described never happened. Then, off the record, a few began floating the idea that, OK, he talked to Comey, but “this is just how Trump talks,” and all he was doing was expressing his fondness of and loyalty to Flynn. But Trump is loyal to no one—The New York Times reports that he’s now soured on son-in-law Jared Kushner, because Kushner supported Comey’s firing and did not predict political blowback. If Trump was trying to get Comey to go easy on Flynn, it’s only because Flynn has damning information on him.
But this is all just noise until Republicans join Maxine Waters, and none of them seem anywhere near ready to do that. Senator John McCain has compared the Comey claim to Watergate—he called it “Watergate-size and scale.” But McCain has developed a pattern of talking tough and doing nothing to rein in Trump. Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr said Tuesday night that he’s skeptical of Comey’s memo, and added, rather bizarrely: “The burden is on The New York Times to produce the memo.” Given that Burr has subpoena power, that’s a strangely passive attitude.
House Republicans have actually been somewhat more energetic, with Representative Justin Amash using the word “impeachment,” and Representative Jason Chaffetz declaring that his oversight committee—which he once pledged would investigate President Clinton even after her inauguration—wants the Comey memos. But there is little they can do as long as Paul Ryan sees his job as defending the president.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Ryan abased himself by yoking his political dreams to the Trump administration, hoping that the hero of the party’s base—white working-class voters—would put a populist sheen on his oligarchic policy agenda. And as long as that base hangs tough behind Trump, which it has so far in polls, he’s unlikely to budge. So it’s fine to call for impeachment—Democrats are allowed to dream, along with Maxine Waters—but it still seems that the best rebuke to Trump will have to wait until the 2018 midterm elections. (Of course, congressional victories by Jon Ossoff in Georgia and Rob Quist in Montana over the next month might hasten the unfolding of this story.) Republicans are derelict in their duty to check and balance the president, but with control of both the House and the Senate, they can continue to be.