A couple of weeks ago, I objected to certain slogans coming out of the protests against Trump that implied he was an illegitimate president. If those of us who oppose him are going to be forced to spend the next four years defending the rules, procedures, norms and institutions of democracy from a potential autocrat, I argued, we have to start by respecting those things, which meant recognizing Trump as the legitimately elected President-elect.
Now, with the intelligence reports of Russian interference in the election building a head of bipartisan steam, I’m not so certain anymore. The legitimacy of President-elect Trump has shifted from settled fact to an empirical question. Unfortunately, the evidence underlying the answer to that question is highly classified, which is why Democrats and a handful of Republicans have been calling for investigations and for the declassification and public disclosure of the CIA and FBI findings.
Today, more Congressional Republicans jumped on board with the call for an inquiry. Those Republicans include Senator Mitch McConnell, who was presented with the agencies’ evidence prior to Election Day and responded to it by threatening to accuse the White House of playing politics with intelligence should they have made it public. Paul Ryan is also on board.
Of course, any investigation will be controlled by Republicans, as the majority party in both chambers. Republicans will dictate the timeline and the zeal and the overall direction of the effort, and the calendar and witnesses for hearings. They’ll be able to turn the inquiry on full blast and then tamp it down to a trickle and back again at will, like a spigot.
McConnell insists that “this cannot be a partisan issue.” But partisanship will inevitably enter into the inquiry, and it is more likely to come from the party that McConnell leads, the one that can actually dictate the course of the investigations, than from the Democrats, who can’t.
Trump may be the leader and the President-elect of the Republican Party, but that doesn’t mean he’s trusted by the establishment leaders he spent his entire campaign belittling, and whose free market orthodoxy he pilloried more effectively than any Democrat in living memory. Trump’s economic cabinet appointments must come as a great relief to Paul Ryan, but it never hurts to have something punitive to wield just in case the President changes his famously capricious mind about whatever deal they’ve undoubtedly made to sign Ryan’s precious deregulatory, tax-cutting, austerity-imposing fiscal agenda into law — especially given what a risk that agenda poses to Trump’s coalition.
Controlling an investigation into potentially treasonous activity is leverage, indeed. It’s a powerful tool for Congressional Republicans to force a bullying, recalcitrant president back into line. Even one from their own party.
Which makes the advent of an investigation into Russian election tampering good news for Republican leaders — but not necessarily so for the rest of the country.