In a well-functioning administration, the revelation that a senior presidential aide had been allowed to keep a highly sensitive job and an interim clearance despite widespread awareness that the individual had physically abused two wives—and was thus subject to blackmail—would result in dismissals of the White House counsel, chief of staff, and anyone else who had facilitated the security breach.
Of course, in a well-functioning administration, senior officials would resign in protest if subjected to the indignities and moral conundrums President Donald Trump subjects Don McGahn, John Kelly, and others to on a near-daily basis. They are now at the center of the firestorm surrounding ousted White House staff secretary Rob Porter precisely because they, like most people in Trump’s orbit, have chosen to compromise themselves and accept bottomless depravity to remain in power, rather than take the obligations of public service seriously.
McGahn and Kelly have been the subject of intense speculation for the past week thanks to two countervailing sources of White House dysfunction. Trump scapegoats subordinates for his administration’s failures, particularly when those failures embarrass Trump directly. But because his underlings have made cronies of themselves, they are valuable to Trump in a way civic-minded aides (i.e. the ones who don’t pledge their loyalty to him) would never be.
Their fates are uncertain because we don’t know whether Trump’s anger over being humiliated will outweigh his desire to be surrounded by supplicants and loyalists, which means the question of whether the day-to-day government will continue to be run by incompetent and depraved people is a bit of a jump ball.
And we should lay responsibility for that state of affairs at the feet of House Speaker Paul Ryan as much as the president’s.
To take Ryan at his word, he views protection of both classified intelligence and women’s physical well-being as extremely high priorities.
Ryan intervened in the 2016 election, after FBI Director James Comey criticized Hillary Clinton’s protocols for handling sensitive information, to publicly ask then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to deny her a security clearance. “[I]t would send the wrong signal to all those charged with safeguarding our nation’s secrets if you choose to provide her access to [classified] information despite the FBI’s findings,” he wrote. “I firmly believe that it is necessary to reassure the public that our nation’s secrets are secure.”
More recently, Ryan claimed to find the prevalence of sexual harassment in Congress and workplaces around the country intolerable. Just over two months ago, at a weekly Capitol briefing, he told reporters that “no woman should have to endure harassment in any form in any institution, let alone here in Congress.”
Whatever Ryan’s true beliefs about information security and sexual misconduct, his revealed preferences show that those issues matter to him far less than his job and the partisan supremacy of the GOP. Ryan routinely changes the subject when he’s asked about Trump’s past predatory sexual behavior. He took his pseudo-stand in the context of demanding the resignation of Democrat John Conyers (who subsequently resigned) but has sat idly by as accused Republicans like Blake Farenthold continue to serve.
Back in May, after Trump disclosed highly classified intelligence Israel had shared with the U.S. to Russian officials visiting the White House, Ryan left it to a spokesman to say he “hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration,” before his committee chairman held precisely zero oversight hearings about the crisis-inducing security breach.
We didn’t need the Rob Porter scandal to appreciate how thin Ryan’s commitments truly were, but it surely has helped. And in this case, it is the reason spousal and workplace abusers have just received the message that their conduct is only unacceptable if it becomes irrefutably public, and it is the reason the country will likely remain endangered by serious misgovernance.
Because he is an accused abuser himself, Trump refuses to accept abuse allegations leveled at others. Trump habitually stands by accused Republicans (like Porter, Roy Moore, and former RNC finance chair Steve Wynn) when they deny wrongdoing. The White House surely insists that Trump stands by Kelly in part because Trump realizes that taking Porter’s conduct seriously would effectively incriminate himself.
But privately, according to the New York Times, Trump is “expressing dissatisfaction with Kelly” and aides believe McGahn should be held accountable as well.
One West Wing official described McGahn as someone who often waves off others and says he has things in hand. https://t.co/fEPKBSgmsD
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) February 12, 2018
If their jobs are in limbo, it is because the still-unfolding scandal might tip the scale in Trump’s mind that weighs loyalism against bad press. But that they have kept their jobs for now is because Trump knows Ryan will make sure there isn’t a single congressional hearing about the White House’s culture of abuse or the extent to which its staffing protocols represent an “intelligence emergency.”
Any sustained congressional scrutiny would lay bare Kelly’s heedless lying and McGahn’s manifest incompetence, and would hasten the departures of both. Instead, the cronyism of the Trump White House will continue to flourish. Trump and Republicans in Congress share the view that rules and laws and accountability are for their political enemies, and Ryan’s role is to make the moral rot of that philosophy as invisible to the public as possible.