The real message of the memo released last week by Rep. Devin Nunes assailing the FBI and Department of Justice is that Donald Trump is changing the Republican Party far more than it is changing him.
The memo from Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, failed to deliver revelations sufficient to reshape the debate over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The most telling aspect of the document was that it was compiled and released at all – to the delight of Trump and over the heated opposition of the FBI and other federal law enforcement and intelligence officials.
That choice from Nunes and other Republicans on the intelligence committee, with support from Speaker Paul Ryan, captured the shifting balance in the GOP’s relationship with its tempestuous President.
Trump has helped Republicans achieve long-standing goals of cutting taxes, regulation and spending, and confirming onto the federal courts deeply conservative judges. It was such accomplishments that led Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week to declare, “2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I’ve been here. The best year on all fronts.”
But with the Nunes memo, the price of those policy gains has become more apparent. Rather than restraining his belligerent instincts, Trump in office has demonstrated even more determination than as a candidate to shatter both the institutional and personal norms of presidential behavior. And he has shown an unstinting willingness to attack any institution – including the Republican-controlled Congress – that he believes poses a threat to him at any point.
Congressional Republicans who once hoped to tame Trump’s behavior have found instead that he has steadily broken their will to resist it. As a result, Republicans have maneuvered themselves into positions that few could have imagined two years ago: impeding a serious investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, defending or downplaying Trump language that inflames racial tensions, excusing his efforts to demand personal loyalty from top law enforcement officials, and now openly attacking federal law enforcement agencies through the Nunes memo alleging senior officials systematically abused the process for obtaining surveillance on former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Even the collective decision by Congressional Republicans – and their evangelical Christian allies – to shrug off the detailed report from the Wall Street Journal that Trump aides established a shell company just before the 2016 election to pay a porn star who claimed to have had an affair with him measures the extraordinary distance the party has traveled.
The cumulative impact of these choices may be to more deeply fuse the GOP’s political identity with Trump’s. The idea that the Republican Congress would impose any meaningful restraint on Trump had already significantly eroded by the time of the Nunes memo. But the release of the memo, over the intense opposition of the FBI and DOJ, shifted the House GOP from diluting oversight of Trump to actively cooperating in his efforts to weaken the federal law enforcement officials he believes could threaten him.
Since Trump’s emergence, the party, broadly speaking, has followed a cycle from openly criticizing his excesses, to trying to look away from them while focusing on their policy agenda, to defending or, as in the Nunes case, actively supporting his actions.
Elements of that trajectory are evident in the responses to Trump of primary rivals such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. But no one exemplifies that evolution more than Paul Ryan.
Ryan describes himself as a disciple of the late Jack Kemp, a former professional football star turned Republican House Member who passionately advocated for a racially inclusive conservatism. Reflecting that tradition, Ryan often bridled against Trump’s behavior during the 2016 campaign.