I’ve always looked at the U.S. presidency the same way I look at Santa Claus, where President Santa makes us feel excited about being good or worried about being bad, but adults know the presents and food are actually coming from your mom (Congress). Look at the Republican healthcare bill; that was Paul Ryan. Obamacare? That was Nancy Pelosi.
So when I obsessively follow the Russia investigation, it’s because I care how Congress conducts investigations of the Trump administration.
It’s a test. Of Congress.
The Trump administration has presented us with a bunch of potential Constitutional crises: foreign espionage risks; financial conflicts of interest; authoritarian moves like firing anybody who disagrees with (or becomes more famous than) Trump, praising brutal dictators, criminally charging a woman who laughed at Jeff Sessions, and having a reporter arrested for asking Tom Price and Kellyanne Conway uncomfortable questions in a hallway.
These remain potential Constitutional crises because Congress can act to counter them. They’re the sorts of things that were always risks of a Presidential system (and are the reason so many Presidential systems turn into military dictatorships after 10-15 years). Presidents try to expand their imperial power because they can act quickly, have a lot of resources, and are fairly unconstrained. But Congress can rein it in. (You could think of the President as the horse pulling the American cart, and Congress as the person in the driver’s seat.)
Most routes to stopping Trumpian excess lead through Congress, and this matters not just for stopping Trump but for telling us that Congress works – which we need it to do for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with Trump. Like that healthcare thing I mentioned.
The Senate is particularly important, and Senate Republicans (the majority party, Trump’s party) most of all. In response to the Comey firing, they are the ones who could appoint a special prosecutor, form a select committee, or ramp up funding to Congressional investigations already in progress.
(Although I doubt our motivations are the same, I agree with Mitch McConnell that I’d rather this stay with Congress than go to a special prosecutor. My reasons are the opposite of tactical; they’re entwined with my philosophy of government. I don’t particularly trust a crusading outsider beholden to no one; I vastly prefer career bureaucrats accountable to a lot of people. See also: I voted for Hillary instead of Trump.)
I don’t see how we’re more likely to get a brilliant special prosecutor than a brilliant new FBI director – in both cases pretty unlikely. And select committees aren’t magical. They’re not able to do anything other committees don’t do. Past select committees which have been great have been great because of the hard work of the people on them, not the fact of their being called select committees.
In other words, what I’m watching is…people. Republican Senators. Are they going to take the reins and keep America on firm ground instead of wherever this mule is determined to take us?
The Hill has collected the statements of all Republican Senators who have publically reacted to the Comey firing. Nuance is important, so read the statements. The Hill categorizes them as:
13 GOP senators critical/concerned
23 supportive of Trump
FiveThirtyEight sorts the same statements as:
15 GOP senators critical/concerned
12 defend Comey firing
(4 GOP senators still haven’t commented.)
On the subject of select committees not being more magical than other committees: the Senate intelligence committee has issued subpoenas for Flynn’s information. “This is the first time the Intelligence Committee has used its subpoena power since the joint inquiry into the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it’s the first time it has subpoenaed documents since the 1970s, a Senate historian told NBC News.” When Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) said Comey’s firing wasn’t going to impede his own investigation, he wasn’t kidding.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has also requested Trump team financial documents from the Treasury department – ones related to a money laundering investigation. Which is neat because it highlights that the Treasury department has its own crimefighting team, called FinCEN (financial crimes enforcement network) and, well, my Dad was an internal auditor until he retired, and one of my best friends is an internal auditor, and I love the kind of people who investigate financial crimes. Not just in the abstract. I love those people.