Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger: With Comey’s firing, GOP must put country before party

By clearing himself of colluding with the Russians in his break-up letter to James Comey, President Donald Trump has made a pressing question even more urgent: Now that he has fired the FBI director who was overseeing the investigation into whether his campaign worked with our enemies to help get him elected, will Senate Republicans finally be forced to focus on this non-trivial matter?

Or — and history will need the answer ASAP — will they respond as they did to Sally Yates and James Clapper, with less interest in how Russia vandalized our election than in who leaked that news?

In sending out a spokeswoman to say it’s time to move on, Trump only underscored why Republicans can’t do that.

Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Richard Burr of North Carolina immediately questioned the timing of the decision. Arizona’s John McCain called it “unprecedented,” “unfortunate” and “not a good thing for America.”

But more typical was the delicately scented potpourri of a non-response from Missouri’s own Roy Blunt: “Director Comey has served the country well in a number of different roles. Many, including myself, have questioned his actions more than once over the past year. I believe new leadership at the FBI will restore confidence in the organization and among the people who do the hard work to carry out its mission.”

This determination to avoid even a glance at the bigger picture is why Clapper, the former national intelligence director, did everything but set himself on fire at a hearing this week to try to get Senate Republicans to stop hiding their eyes: “Concern about the egregious Russian interference in our election process is so critically serious as to merit focus, hopefully bipartisan focus, by the Congress and the American people.” Some spy chief, right? You didn’t need special intel to know that wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, Republicans wanted to know which Obama official to blame for “unmasking” Trump or any of his campaign aides in the course of their surveillance of foreign targets. Who, they wanted to know, had leaked news of Moscow’s meddling? And why again hadn’t Yates, who was acting attorney general when Trump fired her, defended his Muslim travel ban?

Unfortunately for them, Yates told them, answering with a crisp, straightforward professionalism that put their own narrower concerns in an even less flattering light. Poor patriotic Clapper also persisted in thinking that senators needed to hear that after disrupting our election, the Russians “must be congratulating themselves for having exceeded their wildest expectations.” And of course, planning more of the same.

So, Texan Ted Cruz asked, how about those Huma Abedin emails? The purity of that kind of partisan response — straight-up party over country, without evidence of a struggle — is why Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” locked in a lot voters.

But now the swamp things are deflecting attention from how Trump ignored Barack Obama’s direct warning that Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, had lied and had been compromised by Russia. Will those same voters really penalize them?

Up until now, anyway, rank-and-file Republicans have mirrored their leaders on the Hill. They, too, have repeated even the most nonsensical of Trump’s tweeted talking points and have shown a general lack of curiosity about how Russia hacked our democracy.

That has to end now because the moment demands it. Republicans will have to stand up to the president instead of pretending they can’t see how serious the threat is. A threat not so much from Russia as from their own reluctance to find out why our commander-in-chief has fired two people — Yates, the career prosecutor, and Comey, the ever-tortured Hamlet of the Hoover Building — with more allegiance to the country than to him.

Until that changes, the country will be in danger, and the status quo Trump ran against will be as safe as ever.

This column first appeared in USA Today.