It’s easy to lose sight of just how remarkable the revelations were on Friday afternoon. Federal prosecutors explained in court filings that the sitting President of the United States directed his attorney to commit a felony to help him win an election. It’s not the sort of development Americans have traditionally been confronted with.
How would members of Congress respond to the realization that Donald Trump is currently seen by law enforcement as an unindicted co-conspirator? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
Some Republican senators are taking a cautious approach. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), for example, said yesterday, “We’ll just have to wait and see where it lands.” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) added, “We’ve just got to see where it goes.”
These are predictable, though not altogether satisfying, responses to extraordinary circumstances. GOP officials aren’t prepared to call for their party’s president to resign or face impeachment, so they’re content to take a wait-and-see posture.
And then there was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who spoke with CNN’s Manu Raju yesterday on Capitol Hill.
Asked if he had any concerns that Trump was implicated, Hatch told CNN: “The Democrats will do anything to hurt this president.” Informed it was alleged by federal prosecutors in New York, Hatch said: “OK, but I don’t care, all I can say is he’s doing a good job as president.” […]
“I don’t think he was involved in crimes but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to, you can blow it way out of proportion, you can do a lot of things.”
The retiring Utah Republican added that “we ought to judge” Trump on the health of the economy, not on his suspected crimes.
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a sitting senator express wholesale indifference to the rule of law in such stark terms. Confronted with possible criminal allegations against the president, Hatch’s first instinct was to blame Democrats. Reminded that the allegations were raised by non-partisan federal prosecutors serving in the Trump administration, Orrin Hatch – the Senate pro tempore and the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee – explicitly said he simply does not care.
It’s effectively the “evidence, schmevidence” position.
Twenty years ago, when it was Bill Clinton accused of obstruction of justice, Hatch demanded that Congress remove the sitting president from office, insisting that “committing crimes of moral turpitude such as perjury and obstruction of justice go to the heart of qualification for public office.” The Utahan added at the time, “This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes, but it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up. Any other citizen would be prosecuted for these crimes.”
It apparently didn’t occur to Hatch to ask Americans to judge the Democratic president on the health of the economy in 1998.
While Hatch’s stated position yesterday was unusually brazen, he wasn’t necessarily alone. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the current chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), a member of that same panel, both sounded skeptical about Trump’s alleged misdeeds, saying they don’t trust Michael Cohen’s word.
But as the senators really ought to know, there’s no need to simply accept Cohen’s claims at face value. Prosecutors have put together detailed information documenting exactly what happened, when, and why. Trump’s lawyers haven’t made much of an effort to contest the available information, except to argue about his motivations.
Republicans who want to wait for additional information have taken a somewhat defensible posture. I’m not sure what more they want to know, but “we’ll just have to wait and see” isn’t crazy.
But willful apathy about allegations that the sitting president is a criminal is awfully difficult to defend.