Dana Milbank: Remember when conservatives believed no one was above the law?

Washington • Something about President Trump causes conservatives to eat their own.

Henry Kerner was a model conservative. A member of the Federalist Society, he clerked for a Reagan-appointed judge. As a Republican staffer, he led House and Senate inquiries into the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, Obamacare and the “Fast and Furious” gun-running program. Trump rewarded him by naming him head of the Office of Special Counsel.

Then, Kerner went after White House counselor Kellyanne Conway — and everything changed.

On Wednesday, with Kerner at the witness table, congressional Republicans attacked his integrity and ethics, and accused the stalwart conservative of carrying water for progressive groups.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, questioned the "motives" of Kerner, who just a couple of years ago was the lead Republican staff investigator for the same committee that was now receiving his testimony. Kerner's office "doesn't like that [Conway] is conservative," Jordan explained. "She's being targeted because she's good at what she does." Jordan alleged that Kerner was doing "the same thing" the IRS did to conservatives: "They applied one standard to their ideological friends, a different standard if you were conservative."

Kerner could not resist pointing out the absurdity: He was the author of the Senate Republican majority's 37-page report excoriating the IRS for targeting tea party groups.

"No kidding," retorted Jordan, unimpressed.

Fellow Republicans piled on their committee's erstwhile Republican staffer.

Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) accused Kerner of acting out of personal pique ("Kellyanne Conway made you mad") and of acting because of "heat from the media and from some on the left." Meadows alleged that Kerner, a Harvard Law graduate, had not been "consistent with the law."

And then there was Rep. Paul Gosar (Ariz.). "How can we take anything you say as objective when you have a history of questionable ethics?" he asked.

Kerner said Gosar's allegation — that Kerner actually supported the IRS' targeting of tea party groups — was "debunked," "false" and "just a smear." Said the witness: "I'm here because of the tea party victory. I got the job on this committee in '11."

The ferocity of the smear against a fellow conservative was matched only by the irrationality of it. Kerner told lawmakers he had "no choice" but to recommend that Conway be dismissed because of her "clear, repeated and knowing violations of the Hatch Act," which bars federal employees from using their offices for political purposes. Senior officials in the Obama administration had committed only a couple of Hatch Act violations during the entire eight years of the administration, Kerner testified, but Conway alone had already committed 13. Conway has mocked the 80-year-old law, saying, "Let me know when the jail sentence starts." She has refused to testify before the committee and now faces a subpoena.

Her violations weren't close calls. Speaking in her official capacity, she referred to Joe Biden as "Creepy Uncle Joe," the Democrats as a "hot mess," Democratic presidential candidates as "woodchips" and more. Conway's violations "erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law," Kerner wrote.

Such is the pull of partisan tribalism that, given the choice between defending the law and defending a Trump mouthpiece, Republican lawmakers chose the latter. Not that this is surprising. Jordan's campaign spent more than $10,000 at Trump properties last year, and Politico reports that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are speaking at a Jordan fundraiser next month. (Kushner did similarly for Meadows.) In turn, these lawmakers defend the Trump administration when it breaks the law — not just in nuanced cases such as special counsel Robert Mueller's report, but even in the case of Conway's stark illegality.

Kerner pointed out the hypocrisy of his former committee allies. Conservatives called for the removal of Kathleen Sebelius, an Obama Cabinet member, for a single Hatch Act violation; they now excuse Conway's 13. But this was lost on his audience.

Rep. Carol Miller (W.Va.) excused Conway by saying she spoke “the truth” when she called Biden “creepy.”

Rep. Glenn Grothman (Wis.) proposed that Conway was targeted because she's "a successful conservative woman."

And Jordan mocked Kerner's claim that Conway's actions "'erode the principal foundation of our democratic system.' You really believe that?"

"Yes, I do," Kerner replied, "because it shows that the rule of law only applies to the little people."

Remember when that notion — that nobody is above the law — was a conservative belief?

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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