In more innocent times, when people would ask what it would take for House Speaker Paul Ryan to hold Donald Trump accountable for his crimes and corruption, liberals would respond: nothing short of Trump proposing a small tax increase on rich people, in which case Ryan would put his political career on the line to stop it.
Ryan is now in the process of demonstrating that this was neither a joke, nor particularly hyperbolic.
For the first time in the two years since people began asking questions about Trump’s relationship with the Russian government, Ryan has taken a lonely stand against the president and his benefactors in Moscow. Not by forcing Trump to divest from his businesses, or to disclose his opaque finances, or by replacing House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes with a competent investigator who hasn’t himself been compromised.
Instead, Ryan is using at least some of his official heft to oppose Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. His office has publicly implored Trump to reverse himself, and is distributing news articles to reporters tying the tariffs to bad economic and financial news.
Amazing: Speaker’s office sends around story about POTUS trade policy weakening market. pic.twitter.com/v4h0lW9NAV
— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc) March 5, 2018
This is a departure for Ryan, insofar as he frequently insists he has little sway over issues—like the president’s subversion of the rule of law, or the ethics of his committee chairmen—that are well within the purview of the House speaker. But it is entirely consistent with the implicit bargain Ryan made, after Trump won the Republican nomination and then the presidency, to only intervene against Trump when Trump’s corruption or impulsiveness threaten a core GOP donor priority.
The problem, for Ryan and the rest of us, with treating Trump’s behavior as mere heterodoxy, is that it offers no redress for the likelihood that Trump isn’t making policy in the public interest. Ryan can slap back at unwelcome policy proposals as they arise, but as long he allows Trump’s underlying corruption to go unaddressed, they will keep coming, and we’ll have no way of knowing what Trump’s true motives are.
What do steel and aluminum tariffs have to do with Russia? Possibly nothing! But straining ties within the Western alliance, and specifically between the U.S. and Europe, has been a Russian geopolitical goal for decades. Fostering a trade war between America and the E.U. fits that bill perfectly.
And because people like Ryan have allowed Trump to reach the pinnacle of global power without submitting to the most basic transparency norms, we’re all left to wonder whether Trump is being stubborn about tariffs for legitimate political reasons, or for genuinely corrupt ones.
It would be easier to give Trump the benefit of the doubt if his solicitousness of Russian interests were limited to steel imports, but the range of issues is much more extensive.
Trump has never shied away from engaging in nuclear brinksmanship on Twitter, but was conspicuously silent on Friday after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a breakthrough in Russian nuclear capability with an animated video depicting a strike on Florida.
On Sunday, we learned that in addition to ignoring sanctions Congress imposed on Russia, Trump’s State Department has sat on $120 million, which Congress allocated to “counter foreign efforts to meddle in elections or sow distrust.”
Just this week, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer described an unpublished memo by former British spy Christopher Steele, whose dossier helped spur the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign, which suggests Moscow intervened to stop Trump from nominating Mitt Romney to be his secretary of state.
And, of course, last year Trump welcomed the Russian foreign minister and U.S. ambassador into the Oval Office, where he confessed to firing FBI Director James Comey to ease the pressure of the Russia investigation, then leaked them extremely sensitive intelligence, which the Israeli government had obtained from an ISIS infiltrator and shared with us.
It could all be a strange coincidence. But the fact that Ryan has only concerned himself with the tariff issue—and only on policy grounds—has the effect of increasing mass distrust of Trump’s policy agenda writ large. Because under Republican rule, Congress will never use its oversight powers to scrutinize the nexus of Trump’s finances and his administration’s policies.
Recent reporting suggests the Trump administration may have supported a Saudi-backed blockade of Qatar and risked a deadly regional conflict to punish Qatar for not bailing out Jared Kushner’s family business. This kind of corruption can work the other way as well. Setting aside the question of how closely Russia and the Trump campaign “colluded” to sabotage Hillary Clinton, and of whether Russians videotaped Trump cavorting with prostitutes, his debts and financial entanglements create endless ulterior motives all on their own. Had he divested from his businesses, we’d have less reason to be alarmed; had he disclosed his debts, we could at least see where he was vulnerable to foreign leverage. The possibility that someone like Putin might be able to bring down the entire Trump business empire, and that Trump knows it, means we must worry that the leverage is being deployed constantly, and that the government is thus not being administered by or for the American people.