On Monday, House Republicans voted to hobble the work of the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE, an independent oversight committee monitoring ethics violations in the House of Representatives. Everything about this move was myopic. It's never good to introduce yourself to voters by passing legislation that makes it easier for you to cheat them. But to start off your tenure in office with an action that is shady and secretive as well as self-serving is to take self-harm to another level.
Donald Trump, whose political instincts have always been much stronger than his opponents have wanted to admit, did not take long to exploit the opportunity. Piling on to a chorus of bipartisan criticism, he blasted House Republicans for making the weakening of the independent ethics watchdog their first priority in a series of tweets. Within hours, they backed down.
There are no two ways about this: This is a good outcome. Now more than ever, it's important to check government for abuses or signs of self-dealing. And the only way to do that in a reliable manner is to preserve strong independent institutions -- like the OCE -- that are not dependent on the will of political partisans.
But while it is a good outcome, and seems to showcase the President-elect's commitment to "draining the swamp," it is no reason for people who are worried about the corruption Trump may bring to Washington to let down their guard. On the contrary, it should give them three reasons to worry more about the years to come.
First, it shows that Trump is much more likely to be popular than they tend to think. Part of the reason is that Trump has strong instincts for what will play well in the media. But it's more than that. Any incoming President would have known that he'd get accolades for coming out against his own party's decision to abolish an independent watchdog. And yet, most incoming presidents would not have dared to go for the easy win because they would have felt constrained by tradition and party loyalty. This is why Trump's willingness to break with any and all political norms — which is also what makes him so scary to political scientists who have studied the downfall of democracies around the world — is such a powerful asset.
Second, it shows that Republicans are much less likely to stand up to Trump than his critics hope. The most striking thing about the turnabout is that Paul Ryan has reportedly opposed the move to hobble the ethics watchdog from the beginning. But though Republican hard-liners would not listen to their own speaker, they fell in line as soon as Trump fired off two tweets. This should make us skeptical about the idea that those same lawmakers are likely to unite against Trump if it is he who seeks to overstep the boundaries of his rightful authority.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we shouldn't take this as an indication that Trump really does want to drain the swamp. For one, he criticized House Republicans for the bad optics of setting the wrong priorities, not for the substance of wanting to curb the "unfair
" watchdog in the first place.
For another, corrupt leaders with an authoritarian streak, from Hugo Chavez to Vladimir Putin, have nearly always done two things: They have talked incessantly about cleaning out corruption. And they have walked that walk whenever it so happened to weaken rival power centers — as Putin did in prosecuting Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of his most dangerous opponents, for tax evasion.
In short, Trump's first win over the House Republicans shows he has the instincts to remain popular for longer than his critics imagine and that he is likely to encounter less resistance than they hope. What it doesn't show is that he is likely to drain the swamp even when it would harm rather than further his interests.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the 112th Congress.