In 1954, Joseph Welch—the army’s chief counsel—brought down communist witch hunter Joe McCarthy with the searing retort: “at long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Could Senator Jeff Flake be today’s Welch? Comparing him to Joseph Stalin and slamming his attacks on the media as “shameful, repulsive statements,” Flake threw down the gauntlet again at Donald Trump on the Senate floor last week. Indeed, he had cited Welch in his retirement speech in the fall:
No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions… 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it.
But the lame duck Arizona lawmaker has little to lose. His collaborationist fellow Republicans, on the other hand, continue to cower before Trump, choosing the comfort of opportunism over the risks of moral principle. Reaction from Republican quarters has been less than thunderous as public outrage flares over President Trump’s “shithole” remarks. Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, who attended the White House meeting in which Trump let loose with his vulgar remarks, released a joint statement insisting that “we do not recall the President saying these comments specifically.” Nope. They heard “shithouse” not “shithole,” thus giving them a thinly veiled pretext to absolve President Trump.
Call it selective hearing or selective conscience, but the GOP is largely aiding and abetting a leader whose incessant attacks on our democratic institutions should at least give pause to any politician with a thread of moral fiber. After all, it was none other than the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
The Republican Party, in control of the White House and Congress, is doing just that—nothing. With few exceptions, the establishment wing of the party has been coopted by Trump, making them de facto collaborationists with the far right, or, as some are now calling them, “Vichy Republicans.” And this makes conditions ripe for a return of McCarthyism—only this time, it is a president, rather than a senator, who is wreaking the damage.
After having compared his own intelligence community to “Nazis,” lambasted “so-called judges,” carried out a vicious campaign to undercut the FBI’s credibility, and eviscerated the State Department, President Trump is now ballyhooing his own “Fake News Awards” against the mainstream media that he has derided as “the enemy of the American people.” Highly critical of news organizations, Joe McCarthy maintained his own “left-wing press” list in addition to his bogus roster of 205 alleged subversives in the State Department.
Topping Trump’s target list besides the news media are the FBI and justice system. So far, the leading mainstream news organizations are proving resilient and unbowed in face of the president’s unrelenting attacks. The FBI, however, has already incurred damage. The president fired James Comey, popular among the bureau’s rank and file, once he started poking around into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties—and now we know he tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller in June.
In the wake of hours of GOP congressional grilling and Twitter attacks by President Trump, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a 49-year-old fast-riser, has chosen to take early retirement from the FBI, though Trump is seeking to drive him out even before his pension eligibility in March. The bureau’s general counsel James A. Baker was reassigned following a Trump Twitter tirade. Latest on the GOP hit list is James Rybicki, formerly Comey’s chief of staff, who drafted the letter exonerating Hillary Clinton of illegalities in connection with her handling classified information via a personal email server. He left the bureau on Tuesday.
McCabe, Baker, and Rybicki share one key thing in common: they were briefed by Comey just after Trump sought to convince Comey to drop the investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn. They are thus witnesses exposing Trump’s denial as yet another presidential lie. All are targets of the Republicans’ cynical ploy to sabotage the Russia investigation. In the forefront of this effort are Senator Charles Grassley and Congressman Bob Goodlatte—each chair of their respective chamber’s judiciary committee—with Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue in lead supporting roles.
“The baseless, unsubstantiated assaults coming from the ultra-conservative wing of Congress not only risks undermining public trust, which the FBI is dependent upon to do its job, but puts the rule of law at risk,” said Frank Montoya, Jr., a 25-year veteran of the FBI, and until recently, a top counterintelligence official. He describes morale at bureau headquarters as “frustrated and angry, with career agents having been dragged into a political maelstrom that they did not create….[Trump’s supporters on the Hill] think they can mobilize public opinion to shame the FBI, DOJ, and the special counsel, into curtailing their efforts.”
Following Trump’s tweet that the FBI is in “tatters,” Comey’s successor, Christopher Wray, has defended the bureau in general terms before the House and in a message to FBI employees, but has not taken on the president directly. Employees are still assessing the new director, Montoya told me.
The latest twist is that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have distributed a memo to members of Congress alleging FBI and DOJ malfeasance in their conduct of the Russia investigation. The memo has not been released to the public, and Committee Chairman Devin Nunes even refuses to share it with the FBI for evaluation. Now some GOP members of Congress and their abettors in the conservative media are pushing a conspiracy theory that there is a “secret society” in the FBI out to get Trump.
Senator Joe McCarthy got away with his half-decade of political witch hunts precisely because Congress let him. The GOP leadership put McCarthy in charge of the Committee on Government Operations, which he used as his platform for persecuting members of the entertainment industry, the State Department and—culminating in his undoing—the U.S. Army. Some 300 entertainment figures were blacklisted and almost 3,000 government employees were forced from their jobs. The Foreign Service’s best China experts were purged from the State Department—McCarthy’s targeting of State rendered that agency demoralized and intellectually subdued for years. Should the Trump inquisitors succeed, the FBI could face the same fate.
In its just released Freedom in the World report, Freedom House sounds the alarm bell on the present threat to our democratic standards, claiming that America’s “core institutions were attacked by an administration that rejects established norms of ethical conduct across many fields of activity.” An anticipated “blue wave” in the coming midterm elections could tip the ideological balance in Congress, which could then put a check on the president’s attacks on democratic institutions. But for now, Trump and the radical right still have ten more months to inflict their damage, just as McCarthy and his congressional collaborationists did in the 1950s.
The few Republicans in the Senate who are challenging Trump are coming to the end of their political careers. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake are retiring. John McCain is gravely ill.
At the end of 1954, the Senate finally voted to condemn Joe McCarthy for conduct “contrary to senatorial traditions.” It takes collective courage and collective action to take down a would-be despot like Donald Trump. Sixty years after McCarthy, Congress is called upon again to carry out its moral duty.