President Trump may claim that former FBI director James Comey’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee brought him “complete vindication.” But as he well knows, this was just one of the first shots fired in what will likely be a long, hard campaign by Democrats to build a case for his impeachment on whatever grounds they can find. But while he needs to prepare for more months filled with leaks, insinuations, and accusations of lying, abuse of power, and, more important, obstruction of justice, thrown in his direction, that prospect isn’t the only serious problem the Comey hearing revealed. What should also really worry him was the bipartisan tone of the spectacle.
Praise for the serious manner with which the senators from both parties approached their questioning of Comey was nearly universal. Unlike most congressional hearings investigating just about any scandal, what happened on Thursday wasn’t the usual partisan brawl in which members of the two parties pursued two competing agendas each aimed at undermining each other’s position. Though this is a committee that generally avoids partisan squabbles, it was still notable that both Republicans and Democrats weren’t fighting each other or their star witness.
It is true that some Republicans questioned Comey a little more sharply than the Democrats did. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio raised some questions about Comey’s claims about the president’s asking for his loyalty and a request to let former national-security adviser Michael Flynn off the hook. James Risch asked if Comey had ever heard of anyone convicted of obstruction on the basis of expressing a “hope.” And John McCain made a brief and confused attempt to make Comey explain the differences between the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and the Russian-collusion case.
But for the most part, the Republicans treated Comey with kid gloves. Nor did they spend much if any time trying to justify anything Trump did or said.
The reasons for this are obvious.
Most of the Republicans present were not fans of Trump. They were also probably genuinely appalled by what Comey had to say about the president. Even if his testimony provided no conclusive proof that Trump was guilty of violating any law, if the former FBI director is to be believed at all (and the White House seized on the elements of his account that provided some vindication while damning those that didn’t), the president exhibited atrocious judgment that could be interpreted as an abuse of power if not worse.
Most Republicans believe there was no collusion with Russia and no proof of it having yet been unearthed. But Trump’s foolish interactions with Comey ensure that he is now the subject of an investigation about obstruction even if, as the FBI director finally said publicly, the president wasn’t being investigated for collusion.
Trump’s chances of emerging triumphant will primarily hinge on whether there turn out to be any crimes committed by the president or members of his administration. Since there is no telling where this will lead or how much more trouble Trump’s big mouth and Twitter habit will get him into, GOP senators may see no point in going down with his ship should Special Counsel Robert Mueller not ultimately clear the president of all charges.
But even if we are going to give Republican senators credit, as we should, for a high-minded pursuit of the truth as well as for having the good sense not to commit themselves to the defense of indefensible actions and statements by Trump, there’s something else going on here that speaks to a fundamentally different approach to scandals by the two parties.
Put simply, Democrats seem to view all congressional investigations through the same prism of presidential adviser Steve Bannon, that is, as total war, while Republicans do not.
The elements that made the Comey hearing so remarkable and which generated all the mainstream-media praise were exactly those that were missing from every congressional hearing that touched on Obama-administration scandals or those about Hillary Clinton.
Whether it concerned the abuse of power at the IRS, spying on the press, the Benghazi terror attack, or Clinton’s e-mails, those hearings always followed the same pattern. On the one side, Republicans probed for answers and sought to implicate the administration or Clinton. On the other, Democrats played defense, minimizing the issue, attacking their colleagues, lobbing softballs at witnesses under scrutiny, and generally seeking to delegitimize the entire enterprise.
Perhaps some Democrats genuinely believed the issues in question were mere partisan GOP attacks, but anyone without amnesia knows the same people when in power would and did make a meal out of anything done by Republicans. For all of their differences, most Democrats seem to instinctively understand, as many Republicans do not, that no matter which side is doing the grandstanding and venting righteous indignation at hearings, politics is a team sport. Their philosophy is that if it is your team that is in the crosshairs of an investigation, you can’t be neutral.
Senate Republicans appear to view the Watergate hearings in which both parties afforded Richard Nixon no mercy as an example to follow.
As we saw with the Comey hearings, many Republicans prefer the high road from which they can safely damn any misbehavior, even if a fellow member of the GOP is the accused. Though they may hope the story has a different ending this time, Senate Republicans appear to view the Watergate hearings in which both parties afforded Richard Nixon no mercy as an example to follow.
That is an honorable approach, but it is also exactly what Bannon has always hated about the GOP establishment. He sees politics as a war in which no quarter is given or received. That is a mindset that, as the IRS, Benghazi, and e-mail hearings revealed, Democrats share. They fight ferociously to defend their own even if it means rationalizing misconduct.
One reason Democrats can do that with impunity is that they are secure in the knowledge that the mainstream media has their back. That’s not a luxury afforded Republicans. But there’s more than media bias at play as we contemplate the dynamic of scandal hearings. If one party is going to consistently operate as if they are involved in a street fight with no holds barred while the other thinks they are primarily engaged in a Socratic search for the truth, the outcome is pre-ordained.
Conservatives may applaud the principled behavior of Republicans who won’t sully their honor by defending the indefensible. But so long as Democrats aren’t that fastidious, Steve Bannon’s critique of a GOP that is too proud or good to fight dirty and therefore doomed to consistent defeat can’t be dismissed as an irrational analysis. As the probes into the Trump administration continue in the weeks and months to come, that’s a sobering thought for conservatives to consider as they balance their disgust for Trump with their dismay at Democratic opportunism.