Tuesday’s presidential firing of FBI Director James Comey would be uniquely bizarre if not for the routine bizarreness of our mentally unstable president, Donald Trump. A president abruptly fires a law enforcement figure who happens to be investigating individuals close to the president, and possibly reaching to the president – where have we seen this all before? The question for the nation is, how will we respond?
The last time we went through this the nation could count on a Republican Party that – well -- put America first. During Senate Watergate hearings, Republican Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee repeatedly asked “What did the president know, and when did the president know it?” The Republican Party was in the Senate minority then and Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania defended his president. Yet he also urged President Richard M. Nixon to release the White House tapes. Nixon resisted and with reason – when the Supreme Court ordered that the tapes be released, they revealed an extensive cover-up. On August 7, 1974 Senator Scott, Senator Barry Goldwater, and House Republican Minority Leader John Rhodes went to the White House to tell Nixon that his presidency could not be saved. Nixon resigned the next day.
The Watergate Era Republicans were not partisan pushovers. They resisted Democrats when they thought the majority was over reaching or politicizing Nixon’s troubles. Hughes, Rhodes, and Goldwater and the legislators they represented demanded proof of the allegations against the president. They remained loyal – but not blindly, stupidly loyal. They were at bottom decent and patriotic Americans with a deep sense of duty to their nation. And courageous. Don’t leave out courageous.
It’s fairly safe to count out Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as worthy successors to Hughes and Rhodes. Ryan is tantalizingly close to delivering on a trillion dollar tax cut disguised as a health care bill for his most important constituency, the Kochs and their cohort. McConnell has already delivered for his vast donor maintenance enterprise – a Supreme Court justice likely to protect Citizens United and undermine unions for the next three decades. Trump is crucial to Ryan and McConnell and so our nation can’t expect much from legislative leadership.
That leaves the task of saving our democracy to potent but lower level Republicans. As David Frum has written in The Atlantic, what Trump has done is not just an attack on the integrity of law enforcement but a retreat from investigating a cyberattack that compromised American democracy. It’s hard to find an innocent reason for this. Frum calls upon decent and honest Republicans to take action. The intelligence community, which yesterday’s events suggest knows much about Trumpian perfidies, will have to answer as well.
There are Republicans who see their duty to country, not to the party, to Ryan or McConnell, or the Kochs. But they are fewer and less courageous than Republican leaders in 1974. We’ll need a Howard Baker – probably someone like senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. And from within the intelligence community, we’ll need a Deep Throat.
Either McCain and Graham win the Profiles in Courage Award in 2018, or we may not be giving one out for some time.