Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Much of the nation will spend the coming days honoring the late Sen. John McCain. The Republican Party, however, will only pretend to do so.
Donald Trump’s GOP could not care less about the ideals McCain stood for, such as honor, service and community. The party is shamefully molded in Trump’s image now, with his enormous corruption, monumental selfishness and grasping little hands.
This is no exercise in hagiography, which is supposed to be reserved for saints. McCain had many flaws and made big mistakes, not least of which was loosing Sarah Palin upon the world and letting her bring the politics of idiocy into the mainstream. He was a conservative and a foreign-policy hawk; I am neither. But never for a minute could I, or anyone else, doubt McCain’s commitment as a public servant. He cared more about the nation’s well-being than his own.
How quaint such sentiments sound, 19 months into the Trump era.
The man now living and working in the White House is uniquely different from, and worse than, his predecessors. All of them. Other presidents have been venal, bigoted, corrupt, divisive, ignorant or unstable, but never all of these things at the same time, in such lavish measure.
When Trump used a huggy-kissy interview with “Fox & Friends” to rail against “flipping” — the standard practice by prosecutors of offering a member of a crime organization a lighter sentence in exchange for testimony against higher-ups — he didn’t just sound like a mob boss who knows he’s being ratted out. He sounded like a man who would do anything, and I mean anything at all, to keep the investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors in New York from uncovering secrets whose exposure threatens him and his family.
Trump keeps warning that he “may have to get involved” in the Justice Department, which means he may intervene to shut Mueller down. Why would anyone refuse to believe this is a real threat? Why would anyone refuse to believe that now — with Trump’s personal attorney singing to the feds, the keepers of his financial and personal secrets talking to prosecutors under grants of immunity, and his former campaign chairman under great pressure to “flip” — the threat is greater than ever?
Republican senators, who will outdo one another in their lavish encomiums to their longtime colleague McCain, have the power to push back hard — yet they refuse to consider legislation to protect the Mueller probe. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of McCain’s close friends, once said there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a way of asserting control over Mueller; now, Graham meekly says that Trump “is entitled to an attorney general he has faith in.”
Graham is wrong. Trump is not entitled to an attorney general who would sabotage a revelatory and productive investigation because Trump fears it threatens his legitimacy. But that is what Trump clearly wants — and there is no indication that the Republican majorities in Congress will lift a finger to stop him.
The only congressional Republicans who even occasionally speak out in clear language against Trump’s outrages and excesses are those who have decided to retire, such as Sen. Jeff Flake, who calls himself “the other senator from Arizona,” and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.
But Flake and Corker — and the many other Republicans in the Senate and the House who privately acknowledge Trump’s gross unfitness — are afraid to back up their words with deeds. In the closely divided Senate, one courageous Republican could send a message to the president by, for example, crossing the aisle to hold up his judicial nominees. In the House, non-xenophobic Republicans could join with Democrats to pass sensible, comprehensive immigration reform, putting an end to the reign of terror that Trump and Sessions are imposing at the border.
McCain, famously, did take action. Last year, shortly after being diagnosed with brain cancer, he cast the deciding vote against Trump’s slapdash attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Trump is nothing if not vindictive and petty; he issued a brief tweet rather than a lengthier prepared statement about McCain’s death, and on Monday morning, the flags at the White House were not at half-staff. Trump lowered them again that afternoon.
We will hear much this week from Republicans in Congress about honoring McCain’s legacy. Anyone who takes those noble words seriously should do everything possible to elect Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in November. As Trump well knows, the GOP no longer has a spine.
Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.