A depressing mystery hangs over our politics: Why is it that when we have a president whose behavior puts our security interests in peril, our political parties can't confront the threat together?
Here we have a whistleblower from the intelligence community who, as The Washington Post reported, found a “promise” that President Trump made to a foreign leader “so alarming” that the “official who had worked at the White House went to the inspector general of the intelligence community.”
If what Trump did is entirely innocent, you'd assume the White House would want everything to become public so the president could be cleared of suspicion. After all, Trump tweeted on Friday that he had had a "perfectly fine and respectful conversation" and that "there was nothing said wrong, it was pitch perfect!" Further, he accused the whistleblower of being "highly partisan."
So why not share all the information available with the House Intelligence Committee? If Trump’s accuser is some kind of “partisan,” why wouldn’t the president want the world — or at least Congress — to know his basis for saying so?
Instead, the White House and Justice Department are stonewalling, thus ripping apart systems of accountability that were put in place to prevent the abuse of the substantial powers we have given our intelligence services. This is part of a larger undertaking by Trump and his minions to block Congress from receiving information or hearing from witnesses, which is part of Congress' normal and constitutionally sanctioned work of keeping an eye on the executive branch.
When Republicans held Congress during President Obama's administration, it seemed that a missing box of staples might have been enough to launch 100 subpoenas and months of hearings. Now, the GOP is going along with a president whose lawyers — in a court-filing trying to block the Manhattan district attorney from getting Trump's tax returns — are asserting that "a sitting President of the United States is not 'subject to the criminal process' while he is in office." It is a sweeping and astonishing assertion that a president is above the law as long as he sits in the White House, no matter which level of government might be investigating him.
We have become so accustomed to what is blandly called "political polarization" that we don't think there is any mystery about why the Republicans rally to Trump no matter what he does or what dangers our republic might face. It's just what they do now.
And so far, this extreme partisanship has worked for Trump and his party. Attorney General William Barr's false account of what special counsel Robert Mueller concluded in his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election poisoned the public debate because it sat there for weeks before the report itself was released.
The lie that Mueller had cleared Trump took hold just enough that it turned the discussion of “partisanship” on its head. If Democrats pursued impeachment, the Trumpists argued, they would be the partisans. Fear that this ploy would work has made Democrats in swing districts wary of impeachment. Thus did Trump get an additional benefit from Barr’s initial falsehood, backed up by his own party: While Democrats are united in condemning Trump’s behavior, they are divided on the impeachment question. A split opposition is exactly what Trump wants and needs.
The lesson to Trump so far: If lying and stonewalling work, and your own party is too afraid to challenge you, stick with the program.
You might think that Republicans who have made national security their calling card since the Reagan era might finally hit the limits of their cravenness in the face of a whistleblower's bravery. But the party, our politics and our media system are too broken for the old norms to apply.
Even Republican politicians who know how dangerous this situation is thus prefer to stay in their bunkers and hope to survive. The GOP's electorate is dominated by Trump's supporters. Staying mum provides protection from opponents inside their own party — and from their own voters. And if they broke ranks, Trump's media allies would attack them viciously.
By playing for time, these taciturn Republicans will be able to tell us once Trump is gone how they knew all along just how bad he was.
But when the greatest threat to our country is the corruption of our constitutional system, might at least some of the GOP's leading politicians decide that there are worse things than losing a primary, or being upbraided by Fox News?
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.