A Bipartisan Washington Consensus Emerges: Trump Is Bad, but There’s Nothing That Can Be Done About It, Oh Well

Kelly, wearing a black overcoat, looks to his right as a hedge and a tree are seen behind him out of focus.
John Kelly in Belleau, France, on Nov. 10, 2018. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, John Kelly, the former secretary of Homeland Security and former White House chief of staff, told an audience at New Jersey’s Drew University that Donald Trump’s instructions to national security personnel regarding Ukraine amounted to an “illegal order” and that migrants at the Southern border are “overwhelmingly good people.” Kelly left the Trump White House 14 months ago, after helping lead the implementation of the “zero tolerance” policy that separated those overwhelmingly good people, migrants seeking asylum, from their even more overwhelmingly good young children; additionally, as you’ll recall, a Senate impeachment trial at which the president’s Ukraine diplomacy was at issue concluded on Feb. 5. Kelly’s criticism was timed (and located—New Jersey? Come on) so as to have no effect at all on the activities he purportedly objected to.

On Thursday, Kelly’s remarks were praised by former National Security Adviser John Bolton. Bolton has written a book manuscript that reportedly describes Trump’s Ukraine policy as an extortion scheme set up explicitly to benefit his reelection campaign. Juicy revelations from the book kept leaking out during the Senate trial, each one arriving more or less 24 hours after the Senate had made one or another decision that might have been affected by the revelation, had it come sooner. In the end, Bolton didn’t testify during impeachment hearings or the Senate trial and hasn’t spoken publicly about the matter. He, too, has let everyone know that he doesn’t like what’s going on in a way that is otherwise irrelevant.

At the impeachment trial, Republican Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, whose vote could have compelled Bolton’s testimony, gave a speech in which he said he was convinced that Trump had, in fact, withheld congressionally appropriated funds from Ukraine in an effort to solicit the announcement of investigations that would benefit him politically, and that doing so had been “inappropriate”—but that he would nonetheless vote against calling Bolton to testify, and in favor of acquitting Trump on charges of abuse of power.

Earlier this week, federal prosecutors recommended that longtime Trump consultant Roger Stone, who was convicted by a jury in November of lying to Congress and witness tampering, receive a seven-to-nine-year sentence. Trump tweeted that Stone’s treatment was “very horrible and unfair,” after which Attorney General William Barr intervened to request a shorter sentence, causing all four U.S. attorneys who’d worked on Stone’s prosecution to quit the case. When it was widely observed that this intervention was very obviously corrupt—Stone was convicted of obstructing the investigation into Trump’s campaign, after all—Barr gave an interview to ABC in which he said he objects to Trump’s statements about Stone’s case because they create the impression that he is not handling it objectively. This interview, given while he is in the very process of not handling the case objectively, may have achieved the maximum possible gap between “signaling your awareness that what Trump is doing is improper and illegal” and “preventing anything improper and illegal from happening.”

And what are the Democrats doing? Not much. The websites of the House Judiciary, Intelligence, and Oversight committees don’t list any imminent full-committee hearings. This week, the Judiciary Committee announced that it plans to take testimony from Barr … at the end of March. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that House Democrats would not, going forward, “spend all of our time going after every lie that the administration henchmen make to the Congress of the United States.”

Well! You can’t expect Congress to oversee everything, can you? Democrats also haven’t obtained Trump’s tax returns; haven’t held public hearings or issued subpoenas related to the substantial payments that foreign governments and executive branch agencies have made to Trump Organization properties during the current presidential term; haven’t made any public inquiries as to what else might be stored on the classified server to which the White House moved a summary of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after aides realized it might be incriminating; haven’t made any public inquiries into the administration’s contacts with Saudi Arabia during the time it was choosing not to retaliate for the kingdom’s kidnapping and murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi; haven’t made any public inquiries into whether Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose application for a security clearance was initially denied by nonpartisan career officials over concerns that he was subject to foreign bribery, has engaged in business transactions with any of the parties involved in the Middle East peace plan he recently released; and haven’t even ever heard testimony from Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, about why he was told to deescalate tensions with Russia during the presidential transition, or why he later lied about doing so to the FBI.*

Aside from Mitt Romney, who cast the lone Republican vote in the Senate to convict Trump, the Republicans who are aware that Trump is unfit for office have declared they will “let voters decide” what will happen to him rather than doing anything in public when it might make a difference. Democrats, with a few exceptions, also appear determined to leave Trump’s fate to the voters instead of issuing subpoenas, enforcing those subpoenas, using the appropriations process as leverage for investigations, or doing anything else that would give the voters relevant information about the choice of whether to renew the Trump presidency—and they are definitely not organizing mass protests or doing anything else that might lead voters in the right direction.

The president is unpopular on a national level, but Republicans’ deliberate uselessness is motivated by a concern that if they speak out against him, his inflamed and loyal base will vote them out in primaries or threaten their careers in other ways. The Democrats’ motivations are more difficult to figure out, and perhaps have not been figured out by the Democrats themselves. Trump’s election triggered a grassroots “resistance” that helped the party gain a House majority by flipping formerly Republican seats, but its leaders are occupied by fear that seeming too “partisan” will cause those “frontline” seats to flip back. The easiest way out of the pickle is to wait until November of this year for voters to resolve the tension on their own, which is what Pelosi was trying to do until Trump got to work in Ukraine.

Of course, to win an election, you have to win an election, which requires motivated partisans. The Democratic base is thus being told simultaneously that working to punish Trump’s corruption at the polls is a matter of historic urgency, and that Trump’s corruption is not urgent enough to be subjected to even routine congressional scrutiny. When each new scandal breaks, the party sends hyperbolic mass emails to its supporter lists asking for campaign donations to defend the rule of law, then strategically declines to actually defend the rule of law. Having successfully proved via impeachment that Republicans will protect Trump even when polls find, consistently, that Americans believe he should be removed from office—and even gotten a vote to remove from the 2012 Republican presidential nominee in the process—they’ve rested their case, electorally. But the defendant is out out on bail, going wild in the streets, and the jury’s not coming in for another nine months.

Correction, February 14, 3:17 p.m.: This piece originally said that the House had not subpoenaed Michael Flynn; the House did issue a subpoena, which Flynn ignored and the House never took action to enforce.