Lawrence J. Leigh: Rep. Chris Stewart’s dereliction of duty is a Washington tragedy

(Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call via AP) Reps. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., left, and Chris Stewart, R-Utah, view rioters who broke into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes of 2020 presidential election on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

Utah’s congressman for the 2nd District of Utah, Chris Stewart, has sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” both as member of the House of Representatives and as a former Air Force officer, but he is willfully derelict in his duty. Stewart’s failure to defend the Constitution may not be a federal criminal offense, but it is a most grievous dereliction.

A whiff of tragedy comes with this allegation. Stewart’s pre-congressional resume suggests not only a love of country but also a hatred of totalitarian regimes and tinpot dictators. Before Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s standard bearer, he called Trump “America’s Mussolini.” However, Stewart became a Trump acolyte after Trump became president in 2016, siding with Trump in a series of increasingly incomprehensible and indefensible votes.

Stewart objected to the counting of the electoral votes in swing states carried by Joe Biden, voted no on the two Trump impeachments as well as the motion to create a House select committee to investigate the January 6 Capitol attack. He voted yes to oust Trump’s nemesis, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, from her insider position in the Republican Conference.

Stewart’s latest kowtow to Trump came a few days ago when he cast the vote that broke this camel’s back. Along with all except nine Republicans, Stewart voted “no” on a motion to charge a former Trump White House staffer Steve Bannon with criminal contempt for intentionally refusing to testify before the House Select Committee investigating the taking of the Capitol last January 6. With the Democrats still in the House majority, the motion carried notwithstanding Stewart and his comrades’ best efforts to kill it. Bannon almost certainly will be charged by federal prosecutors and receive the justice he so richly deserves.

The January 6 committee’s job is to understand the forces behind the Capitol attack. A day before the attack, Bannon forecast on his podcast that the next day would be “extraordinarily different than most Americans expected.” He predicted, “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” Bannon told any listeners who profess that if there were a revolution, they would go to Washington: “This is your time in history.”

Not surprisingly, Bannon’s foreknowledge of the attack spurred the committee to subpoena him. However, Stewart and his gang not only unsuccessfully opposed the subpoena, but also voted not to punish Bannon for not complying with the committee’s subpoena.

Defending his no vote, Stewart said, “Speaker Pelosi’s select committee was committed with a singular purpose: political theater. That’s why I voted against its creation and that’s why I will continue to ignore her partisan games.” Stewart’s explanation is a variation on the House Republican party line: The committee’s investigation is just a partisan exercise, move along, nothing to see here.

House Republicans conducted an exhaustive and exhausting investigation of the attack on the American mission in Benghazi which resulted in four Americans deaths and 10 others injured and a minor diplomatic outpost burned with minimal effect on diplomatic functions. But the same crew saw no reason to investigate the attack on the Capitol Building which proximately caused the death of five Americans and serious injuries to over 100 police officers, not to mention the sacking of the United States Capitol (something even the Confederate Army failed to do). Oh, I almost forgot: the Capitol attackers disrupted for the first time ever the counting of electoral votes in a presidential election, coming within a cat’s whisker of plunging the country into a first-rate constitutional crisis. Except for these minor details, it was just another day at the Capitol.

Seriously, it’s stuff like this that drives ordinary folks to despise Washington. True, both Democrats and Republicans often engage in similar cheap tricks without the faintest blush at their hypocrisy. But the attack on the Capitol was more than just another incident. It was a dagger aimed at the heart of the Republic, an 8.7 on the Political Richter Scale just below the firing on Ft. Sumter. To not inquire into January 6 is dereliction of congressional duty at the highest level.

And this is the tragedy of Chris Stewart. He and his House leadership have become subservient to Donald Trump, a man, in any moral universe, Stewart would not want as a friend, neighbor or commanding officer. Why he wants him as his president I cannot fathom. Stewart could be the subject of a Hollywood movie. But it has already been done. Stewart’s cinema counterpart is the senior senator played by Claude Rains in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The senator first comes to Washington brimming with idealism, but then surrenders to darker forces, and then realizes too late that he frittered away his chance to do good.

But time is too precious to spend mourning Stewart. He needs to be voted out and replaced. Oliver Cromwell said the same with more punch addressing the Rump Parliament almost 400 years ago. “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you; in the name of God, go!”

I cannot say it better than that.

Lawrence J. Leigh

Lawrence J. Leigh has a Ph.D. in government from the University of Arizona. He also is a former Assistant United States Attorney for Utah and the Northern District of California.