Dana Milbank: Republicans won’t have anything left to salvage

IN this Aug. 16, 2018, photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives at the chamber to begin work on a judicial confirmation, at the Capitol in Washington. Much has changed in the unlikely partnership between Trump and McConnell. This time last year, the two men were barely on speaking terms. Now they talk almost daily about strategy, campaigns and counting votes.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Washington • What President Trump and his cadre have done is very bad.

What Republican leaders are doing is unforgivable.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood on the Senate floor Wednesday morning for his first public remarks since the seismic events of the day before: The president's former personal lawyer pleaded guilty to fraud and breaking campaign finance laws, implicating the president in a crime; the president's former campaign chairman was convicted on eight counts of financial crimes, making him one of five members of Trump's team who have been convicted or have admitted guilt; and a Republican congressman was indicted, the second of Trump's earliest congressional supporters to be charged this month.

It was time for leadership. McConnell ducked.

Instead, he hailed Trump’s campaign rally in West Virginia the night before. He disparaged President Barack Obama’s record. He spoke about low unemployment “under this united Republican government.” He went on about coal, taxes, apprenticeship programs, health research, prisoner rehabilitation and more — and not a peep about the corruption swirling around the president. When reporters pressed McConnell in the hallway for comment, he brushed them off.

McConnell's counterpart in the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, was equally cowardly. "We are aware of Mr. [Michael] Cohen's guilty plea to these serious charges" was his office's official statement. "We will need more information than is currently available at this point."

What more do you need, Mr. Speaker? What more will it take, Republicans? It seems nothing can bring them to state what is manifestly true: The president is unfit to serve, surrounded by hooligans and doing incalculable harm.

A scroll through Republican lawmakers' tweets since the Cohen-Manafort combination punch late Tuesday found shameful silence. GOP House leaders Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise tweeted about a murder allegedly committed by an illegal immigrant.

It briefly appeared that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley was doing the right thing. He tweeted a suggestion to read Gerald Seib's Wednesday Wall Street Journal column proclaiming the "darkest day of the Trump presidency." Fourteen minutes later came a corrective tweet from Grassley: He meant a previous Seib column, on another subject.

Among the few Republican lawmakers demonstrating dignity: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, ex-FBI agent, commended his former colleagues for "upholding the rule of law."

This intolerable silence of the Republicans — through “Access Hollywood,” racist outbursts, diplomatic mayhem and endless scandal — is what allows Trump and his Fox News-viewing supporters to dock their spaceship in a parallel universe where truth isn’t truth. At Tuesday night’s rally in West Virginia, Trump’s irony-challenged audience could be heard chanting “Drain the Swamp!” and “Lock her up!” (Hillary Clinton, that is), just a few hours after Paul Manafort’s conviction and Cohen’s guilty plea.

Republican lawmakers fear that with 87 percent of Republican voters backing Trump, crossing him is political suicide. But this is circular. Support among the Republican base remains high because Republican officeholders validate him.

It took a year from the Watergate break-in to Republican Sen. Howard Baker's immortal 1973 question about a Republican president: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Instead of Baker, today we have Texas' John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, saying: "I would note that none of this has anything to do with the Russian collusion or meddling in the election."

And Grassley: "I don't think I should be speculating."

But there doesn't have to be collusion, or even speculation, to recognize that something is terribly wrong. There is no good answer to the question Cohen lawyer Lanny Davis posed after his client said under oath that Trump directed him to pay off two women to influence the election: "If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?"

A few Republican senators (Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, Richard Burr) have rhetorically distanced themselves from Trump. But their modest efforts don't sufficiently protect the party, or the country, from Trump's sleaze and self-dealing.

The moral rot is spreading. Two weeks ago, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., was arrested on charges related to insider trading — from the White House lawn. On Tuesday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and his wife were charged with using campaign funds for travel, golf, skiing, tuition, tickets, clothing, makeup, dental work and more, often while claiming the funds were being used on charities.

His office's Trumpian response: "This action is purely politically motivated."

If Republicans don't put some moral distance between themselves and Trump, there will soon be nothing left to salvage.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter: @Milbank