Democracy & Government

Republicans, Where’s the Backbone?

Desperately seeking those GOP politicians who will stand up against a know-nothing bully who holds the highest office in the land.

Republicans, Where’s the Backbone?

President Donald Trump participates in a congressional listening session with GOP members in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Feb. 16, 2017. Next to him is Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY). (Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

Congressional Republicans, we watched you at the White House Thursday. Just before Donald Trump’s rambling, manic, often snarky press conference — delivered more in the manner of a churlish insult comic than leader of the free world — the president met with a group of you, a self-titled “Trump caucus” of early supporters.

You fawned over him like autograph hunters gushing over their favorite movie star. Rep. Chris Collins of New York: “Mr. President, we’re all honored to be here.” Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee: “We’re excited about the work you’re doing.” And Missouri’s Billy Long referenced the recent visit of Japan’s prime minister: “I knew you all would hit it off because you’re both people persons and great personalities. … I knew you guys would get along good.”

Oh, brother. Has it come down to this? The party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower in the thrall of a petulant, impulsive, preening and shamelessly amoral president who thinks Vladimir Putin is the apex of effective management.

Republicans, is this really the legacy you choose?

How can you not take a solid stand against an unhinged con man who in less than a month has undermined fundamental constitutional liberties, thrown governance into disorganized hell and possibly made decisions based on his desire to please the leader of another country? (What’s he afraid that Putin might do?)

It’s well reported now that Trump campaign aides, including hustlers like the recently fired Mike Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort — dubbed “the King of K Street” by a prominent business magazine — were in regular touch with Russian intelligence and other officials during our 2016 election cycle and the presidential transition. Were they coordinating dirty tricks to damage not only the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party but the fate of American democracy as well? It’s possible.

Listening to Morning Edition on NPR this week, we were struck by the inability of some of your colleagues to get a grip and face some hard truths about all this. The broadcast played a Fox News clip of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) appearing to justify a cover-up: “I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party.”

Then host Steve Inskeep spoke with Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), who seemed to think Mike Flynn and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia weren’t the problem. Following his president’s claim that the Russia story is a ruse and the real issue is leaks, he said, “I mean, the leak of highly classified information by, what is apparent here, a number of individuals inside our intelligence community, is the illegal act that I think we need to review.”

Johnson added: “I don’t think that there’s anything extraordinary at all about persons in an incoming administration or during a campaign talking with officials from other countries.”

Would you agree with us that a comment like that bespeaks less a stupid man than a man who looks upon the public as stupid? Is that what you think of the people now? In the full blossom of your monopoly power over government, are you writing off the people who gave you that power?

And so it went: Hemming and hawing, backing and filling, their comments reminded us of Watergate, a scandalous sequence of events that the two of us witnessed firsthand, and thought — or hoped, at least — would be the worst political and constitutional crisis of our lifetimes. This has the potential to be much, much worse.

Back then, as today, many Republicans refused to acknowledge the horrors perpetrated by Richard Nixon and his thugs. Some held onto their willful blindness right up to the bitter end, when to ignore the man’s perfidy would have been tantamount to treason. Thanks in part to the courts and journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and to true Republican patriots who refused to follow Nixon’s nefarious orders, this country narrowly averted a disaster.

Now, once again, we find ourselves desperately counting on the courts and an independent press to help protect us. We can’t depend on but a handful of Republican senators and House members who have come forward. They’ve called for more thorough investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees, and that’s a start, but in this current Congress, it’s more than likely that a truly, impartial, transparent, honest inquiry will be stymied and quashed.

That’s why we continue to insist that only an open and public, independent, bipartisan investigation can determine if Trump and his pals actually colluded with Putin’s intelligence agencies to influence the 2016 election, and whether they came to power obligated to carry out the wishes of a foreign power.

Here’s what former Democratic House member Lee Hamilton — who was vice chair of the independent 9/11 Commission — just told Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post: “Very aggressive leadership is necessary,” he said. “There’s just an awful lot out there that needs to be clarified and investigated independently by people who do not have an interest in the outcome of the investigation. I am doubtful that the Congress can put together a very robust investigation. Their performance on oversight in recent years has been deplorable — timid and not robust enough.”

We have to remind you of something: Those Republicans who stand by watching all of this, silently, in the hope that in return for their obeisance they will get away with forcing a right-wing agenda of privatization, deregulation and inequality upon the nation, should keep in mind that when survivors look back upon a time of acute crisis, those who are remembered are not the spineless and opportunistic who hoped to snag a piece of the action. Rather, it is the men and women who rose in defiance and said this betrayal of what my country is supposed to be will not stand.

In the ’50s, the red-baiting Joseph McCarthy was brought down not just by newsman Edward R. Murrow and the compassionate but scathing attorney Joseph Welch, but also by Republican senators who said enough is enough. During Watergate, Richard Nixon was not undone solely by The Washington Post and the justices of the Supreme Court, but also by Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted for his impeachment and the senators who came to him in the White House and said it is time for you go.

Republicans, there is a name for those who take the moral high ground and fight back: heroes. When all is said and done, how will you be remembered?

Bill Moyers

Managing Editor

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com.

Michael Winship

Senior Writer

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship.