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Republicans in Congress, Is This Too Much to Ask?

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This piece will be appearing this weekend in two newspapers in my conservative congressional District (VA-06).

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I realize that you Republicans in Congress are in a difficult spot, depending as you do on voters who remain supportive of the President. So I understand that self-preservation puts limits on what you’re willing to do in relation to the President’s transgressions.

But the nation has just reached an important “teachable moment,” and you Republicans in Congress are the ones in the best position to do the teaching. It’s important because it has to do with the foundation of the American system of government: the rule of law.

In his interview with the New York Times, President Trump expressed his regret for having named Jeff Sessions Attorney General. The reason: Sessions recused himself from the investigation into the Russia/Trump questions.

As is widely recognized, there is only one interpretation for what Mr. Trump said: he is angry that Sessions removed himself from a position in which he could protect Trump from the investigation.

In two ways, Trump’s anger demonstrates either a lack of understanding, or a lack of concern, for the rule of law.

First, he gives no sign that he recognizes that Sessions was required – by well-established American norms to protect the integrity of our justice system – to recuse himself. He was following the clear ethical imperatives, communicated to him to him by the Justice Department. (Or, if he recognizes that, he doesn’t see any need to respect those norms.)

Second, Trump shows he expects that his Attorney General, had he not recused, would make it his priority to be loyal to him, not to the Constitution and the integrity of the legal process. That is completely contrary to the duty of an American Attorney General.

That Trump would declare all this so clearly and so publicly suggests that he does not understand how fundamentally he is transgressing against the principle, articulated by our founders, that ours is “a government of laws and not of men.” Either that, or it is a sign of the brazenness of his disregard for our constitutional order.

In James Comey’s account of his own interactions with the President, that same question arose, of whether the President understands that he and all the other actors are duty-bound to give their ultimate loyalty to the Constitution and to the institutional norms – like the independence of the processes of justice – that have been constructed by generations of Americans to protect our constitutional order.

(Trump’s remarks to the Times should eliminate any questions about the truthfulness of Comey’s account: all the same ingredients – loyalty to the president rather than the law, the imperative urge to block the investigation – are present.)

If, indeed, the problem is that he does not recognize that principle of the rule of law, and his responsibility to honor it, perhaps you could instruct him. Such instruction could be done gently, but it also must be done publicly.

The need for you Republicans to make these points publicly is because it is not only the President for whom this “teachable moment” could be useful. You could also be teaching those Americans who might not recognize the danger posed to American democracy if the President – the one person that the Constitution dictates will “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed” – either does not understand his constitutional responsibilities or is willing to knowingly cast those aside to serve himself.

The education of the American people about the paramount importance of this issue may prove of vital importance to the well-being of the nation if a constitutional crisis lies ahead.

People may more readily be upset by what was revealed on the Access Hollywood tape. But if the president cannot or will not respect the rule of law, that defect is far more important – in a president – than a propensity to assault women. The one is appalling on the small scale of individual human relationships, but the other can do damage to a nation of 325 million people—a nation that has been (until now), the indispensable “leader of the free world.”

Hence the importance of this teachable moment.

So please, congressional Republicans, could you speak up? You need not jeopardize yourselves by attacking the president. The job can be done in a clear and kindly way.

It will suffice to remind him mildly about the importance of respecting the American tradition in which the Department of Justice and the FBI operate independently, owing their fealty not to the President but to the Constitution and the rule of law.

Gently indicate your sense of the importance of non-interference in the investigation being led by Robert Mueller, a man whose integrity has been beyond reproach over a long career.

Encourage the President to understand that, in America, no one is above the law.

Help the American people to understand these basic American principles.

Is that too much to ask?