Yesterday, Donald Trump fired James Comey because, he says, Comey mishandled the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. That explanation is an obvious lie, and reporting this morning has confirmed the obvious: Trump fired Comey because he was upset about the FBI's Russia investigation.
After the news broke, I described the firing as "the greatest unforced error since Nixon fired Archibald Cox." I still think that's right. But what I wrote next hasn't worn as well in my mind: "Expect similar results." In fairness to me, many other people have said similar things, and it's true that in ordinary circumstances, the President firing the FBI director to forestall an investigation into his own misdeeds would be a serious political catastrophe.
But I was wrong---for now.
When Senator Kennedy introduced a resolution to establish a select committee to investigate improprieties in the 1972 presidential election, the Democratic Party controlled both the Senate and House of Representatives. As a result, the party enjoyed a majority on the Watergate committee, which it used to subpoena Nixon's White House tapes. It was the wrangling over those tapes, of course, that both prompted Nixon to fire Archbald Cox and ultimately forced his resignation.
By contrast, the Republican Party today controls both houses of Congress. If Trump's firing of Comey is going to matter, it will have to be those Republicans who make it so. Yet those Republicans have demonstrated that they have no interest in that: both Mitch McConnell and Richard Burr (the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee) have already rejected calls for a special prosecutor. Although a small handful of Congressional Republicans (like John McCain and Justin Amash) have called for a select committee or independent commission, they are mainly notable because they are exceptions.
If that's the way things stay, then Comey's firing just won't matter. It may be unpopular with the public, but Trump is already unpopular, and has been all along. His favorability ratings have been underwater since the day he launced his campaign, most people disapprove of how he's doing his job, most people voted for his opponent in the 2016 election, and his response has been to lie to his supporters about the bad news when he bothers to acknowledge it. Until Trump faces re-election, the only political mechanism to hold him accountable is Congress. And if they don't care, nothing will happen.
It would be a fair question to ask why Republicans in Congress don't care about this sort of thing. On Twitter, Matt Karp provided what I think is the most sensible answer. Congressional Republicans, in his view, are committed to what he calls a "material program." That is, they are committed as a group to lower taxes on the wealthy and for corporations, fewer restrictions on the ability of businesses to harm the environment, and conservative judges who will, they hope, rigorously enforce that material program on the back end long after Trump leaves office. And they're willing to do what it takes to get that program enacted into law.
In other words, the Republican Party is organized to a far greater extent than the Democratic Party around a common set of ideas about who is going to get what, when, and how.
Thus, when Trump became the Republican nominee for President, Paul Ryan endorsed him, as did essentially every other Republican politician (save a few admirable exceptions). His stated reason for doing so was that Trump would sign off on the party's legislative program, as indeed he has (even when that program is starkly at odds with what Trump promised during the campaign). Ryan maintained that endorsement all the way through Election Day, even after Trump boasted of his love of sexual assault, an affection that was subsequently confirmed many times over. Ryan undoubtedly found Trump's sex-crime hobby personally objectionable, but adjudged it less important than ensuring that Medicaid was cut down to size or that free school lunches for poor children (which Ryan has said gives them "full stomachs" but "empty souls") be brought to an end.
You could imagine a different world: in the French presidential election, for example, conservative candidate Francois Fillon endorsed the center-left candidate after he was defeated in the first round because he regarded the Trumplike Marine Le Pen as unacceptable.
But that's not the world we live in.
The most fascinating part of this dynamic is that from Trump's perspective, forcing Republicans to cover for him on Russia (and everything else) helps him solve a crucial problem: trust. As Matt Yglesias has pointed out, Trump entered the political arena with essentially no allies he could trust outside of his own family, staged a hostile takeover of a Republican Party that fought him until there was no choice, and now must operate in a world in which "most of the members of his party would probably prefer to see Mike Pence sitting in his chair."
Early in Trump's administration, Tyler Cowen argued that requiring his subordinates to lie publicly in obvious ways helped solve that problem. For example, demanding that Sean Spicer repeat ridiculous fabrications about something easily measured, like crowd size, accomplished two objectives: first, it undercut Spicer's "independent standing," making him more dependent on Trump's good graces. (Who, at this point, would hire Sean Spicer to do anything?) Second, it functioned as a test: "If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren't fully with you."
The same dynamic is at work with the Comey firing. Congressional Republicans who cover for Trump by (for example) blocking an independent investigation that is popular with the public become more reliant for their own electoral success on Trump's ability to turn out his electoral base for them, and thus have less ability to betray him for personal political gain. It also associates those Republicans more directly with Trump, ensuring that their fortunes will rise and fall with his---which, again, makes it harder for them to betray him. Moreover, it allows Trump to see precisely who's with him and who isn't.
But while clever, this is also what Nassim Taleb might call a very fragile strategy. The instant the opposition party can get control of either house of Congress, the entire house of cards comes down very quickly. The many misdeeds of the Trump Administration are either rapidly revealed (using the subpoena power of the investigative committees), or the administration prompts a full-blown constitutional crisis by refusing those subpoenas. Trump either resigns or (perhaps even worse) remains in office with his popularity plummeting, dragging down with him all of those Republicans who (it is now known) spent years covering up egregious corruption and perhaps even crime. Some people go to jail; others just lose re-election; and all just in time for the 2020 census, and with it, the drawing of new district maps.
In the 1974 midterm election, the Democratic Party was propelled to huge majorities by a wave of disgust with the Watergate scandal: they gained almost 50 seats in the House (putting them above the two-thirds mark) and held a 22-seat majority in the Senate. The 1976 election went even worse for the Republicans, and empowered by Democratic supermajorities, President Carter signed a raft of liberal legislation (including the Clean Water Act), created the Department of Education, amended the Constitution to expand voting rights, and put Stephen Reinhardt on the Ninth Circuit.
Republicans who are covering for Trump, in other words, have hit on a good strategy. They just have to make sure to never lose again.