The GOP Surrenders to Trump

My latest in the New York Daily News:

It is not Donald Trump's fault that the State of the Union has devolved into a reality television spectacle, with equal parts puffery and pep rally.

What Trump has done, however, has been to turn it into a full-fledged alternative reality experience in which we get to imagine that he might actually be a uniter, a statesman and an empathetic human being. He is, of course, none of those things, but for a while last week both partisans and pundits could indulge their fantasies.

The occasion did, however, serve to highlight a genuine reality in Washington D.C.: the surrender of the GOP to Trump and its willingness to serve as his political praetorian guard.

Rituals of sycophantic abasement by the GOP have by now become almost routine, as we saw with the fawning praise heaped on the President at the celebration following the passage of the tax cut bill.

But last week had a different feel to it. We saw was the GOP's full-blooded embrace of the Trump presidency and of Trump himself, including his attempts to obstruct and derail the investigation into his conduct.

The release Friday of a partisan, cherry-picked memo that was clearly designed to discredit the ongoing Trump-Russia investigations marked a dramatic escalation of the Republican Congress' transformation of itself into willing accomplices of the President, even if that involved attacking and undermining the nation's law enforcement agencies.

Although Trump and his Republican allies claimed that the memo was released in the name of "transparency," they have blocked the release of the Democrats' rebuttal memo and of the underlying FISA documents. Only Rep. Devin Nunes' document, engineered for partisan gain and guilty of what the FBI considers "material omissions of fact" that "fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy," is seeing the light of day.

Put all of this in context. It is, of course, normal for members of the President's party to give him moral and political support. But nothing about Trump's presidency has been normal.

In the first year of his presidency, the President had attacked and subverted one norm after another, beginning with his assault on the truth. All politicians deceive, but Trump's lies have been constant and chronic, as he has ushered in a post-factual political era.

Early in his presidency he falsely accused Barack Obama of ordering the wiretapping of Trump Tower and insisted that millions of illegal votes had denied him a victory in the popular vote. There was no evidence for either claim.

At the same time, he bullied critics, including a Gold Star family, attacked and threatened the media, used his office to enrich himself and his family, and engaged in conflicts of interest that would have been illegal for any other official.

As the #MeToo movement gathered momentum, critics noted that he had been credibly accused of harassing or assaulting numerous women. Throughout his first year in office, he stoked racial animosity by picking fights with prominent African-Americans, including NFL players, and suggested that neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville included many "fine people."

Meantime, he has distanced himself from many of our traditional foreign allies, while offering fawning praise for thuggish dictators around the world.

In December, he had retweeted a British racist group's attack on Muslims and put the prestige of his office behind an accused pedophile running for a seat in the United States Senate.

Perhaps inspired by their example, he repeatedly has suggested prosecuting or jailing his political opponents. In the days before the State of the Union, the Wall Street Journal reported that a Trump lawyer had paid a porn star $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair she had with the mogul when he was newly wed to his third wife, Melania.

And of course, in the weeks leading up to the State of the Union speech, the man who had begun his campaign by lashing out "Mexican rapists," poisoned and derailed negotiations over immigration by objecting to immigrants from "shithole countries."

And then is his assault on the rule of law and his attempts to obstruct an investigation into his ties to Russia. Trump, who has labeled the probe a "witch hunt," fired the FBI director and bragged to Russian officials about it, all the while downplaying the severity of the Russian attack on our democratic process.

In June, he reportedly ordered the firing of the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, only to be dissuaded by a resignation threat from his own White House counsel. More recently, he had forced out the deputy FBI director after ridiculing him on Twitter, and reportedly was considering further purges in the Justice Department.

So the question always was: what price would he pay for this? What was the limit of the GOP's tolerance of this behavior?

At various times, some GOP leaders have shuffled to express muted disappointment. There has been harsher criticism from a handful of senators, like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who then announced that they would not seek re-election.

Others insisted that they supported the Trump agenda and policies, rather than the man. Tax cuts, they reasoned, were worth ignoring a few tweets, even the ugly ones. Plus, they got Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.

But for those who have spent the last year wondering whether Republicans would ever turn on or distance themselves from the erratic President, last week provided a decisive answer: no, never.

The measure of their devotion to Trump was not merely reflected in their many ovations and huzzahs at the speech. Throughout the week, they also lined up to aid an abet Trump's campaign to discredit, delegitimize, and otherwise obstruct the special counsel's investigation into Trump's Russian ties.

What's important to understand here is that none of this was inevitable. Congress is a co-equal branch of government, with a long and rich history of standing up to the executive branch. Over the last year, both the House and the Senate have been conducting their own investigations into alleged Trump campaign collusion with the Russians. Moreover, the appointment of Mueller as special counsel could have given Republicans an excuse to distance themselves from the messy probe, while pursuing other legislative priorities. And, for a time, that seemed to be happening.

But within recent weeks, as the Mueller probe has seemed to edge closer and closer to the President's inner circle, the fever swamps of the right have overflowed their banks. Theories that had once been confined to the woolier corners of the right suddenly gained traction and, crucially, a constituency on Capitol Hill.

Fox News and other Trump-friendly media long ago became fever wards of speculation and conspiracy mongering as they obsessed over plots from the Deep State.

In recent weeks, some of that rhetoric began to seep into Congress.

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz took to cable television to declare that there was a "criminal cabal" attempting to discredit Trump. Even the normally dour and level-headed Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, suggested that there was bombshell evidence of "secret society" within the FBI plotting against the President; that claim quickly fizzled when it turned out it was rooted in what was almost certainly an offhand, sarcastic comment between two agents.

All of this came to a head with the much-hyped memo that was released last Friday. The point of the memo was never in serious question: It was designed to undermine The Mueller investigation and perhaps lay the ground for Trumpian purges at the agency and perhaps the Department of Justice itself, including the firing of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been overseeing the Russia probe.

In an extraordinary clash, both the FBI and the DOJ pushed back hard, telling both congressional leadership and the White House that releasing the Nunes memo would be "reckless." On Wednesday, the FBI issued a pointed statement, saying that it had been provided only "a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it."

And lest there be any lingering doubt about its credibility, the FBI reiterated those "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy." Translated into plain English, the FBI was saying that the memo was propaganda and potentially dangerous propaganda at that.

But Republicans in the House, with the approval and support of Speaker Paul Ryan, had voted to release it anyway, opening a new chapter in the fraught history of Trump and the GOP: from resistance, to acquiescence, to enabling, to a slavish willingness to protect Trump from an investigation into criminal wrongdoing.

Defending the release of the memo - but not of the Democratic response - Ryan insisted that it had nothing to do with the Mueller investigation. But this was either naïve, obtuse or disingenuous.

What we saw last week was a Republican Party that has lashed itself inextricably to Trump, even on issues that have little or nothing to do with the conservative agenda. Nor was the decision merely partisan; it pitted the GOP House against the Republican Justice Department and Trump's own FBI director. But the House GOP has apparently decided that the Mueller investigation poses an existential threat not merely to the Trump presidency but to their own hold on power.

It would be wrong to blame House and Senate Republicans alone for their slavish devotion to the President. In going Full Trump, the party is also following the sentiments of its base.

Last month, a new poll found that the overwhelming majority of Americans - 71% of independent voters, 67% of male voters, and 68% of female voters - had come to the sane conclusion that Trump was not setting a good example for children.

The one glaring exception? Seventy-two percent of Republican voters said they thought that Trump "is a good role model for children."

Once, Republicans were members of a party that insisted that "character matters." But now, wrote Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, "the pull of tribalism" is so great that "we've reached a point where partisanship outweighs morality. Republicans aren't approving of Trump despite his behavior; in calling him a role model, they're approving his behavior."

And that's what we saw last week. Shift the focus from the podium to the audience for a moment. Trump has not pivoted or changed; it is the Republican Party and the conservative movement that have transformed themselves into something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

They have become toadies, sycophants, lemmings. Only unlike lemmings, they may well live to regret it.

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Sykes, a former conservative talk show host, is author of "How the Right Lost Its Mind."