In early January, FBI director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with House Speaker Paul Ryan and asked him to rein in his attack dog, Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes, who also attended the meeting, had supposedly “recused” himself from the Trump-Russia investigation, but in fact was running an increasingly vicious counter-investigation against the Department of Justice in an attempt to defend the administration. Wray and Rosenstein worried that Nunes’s subpoenas were threatening to expose sensitive law-enforcement documents. But, CNN reported on January 4, “it became clear that Ryan wasn’t moved and the officials wouldn’t have his support if they proceeded to resist Nunes’ remaining highly classified requests.”
Since then, Nunes’s campaign against federal law enforcement has escalated. He has compiled a secret memo making wild allegations of conspiracies and even criminality against all of Trump’s legal antagonists. The entire conservative media infrastructure, goaded on by Trump himself, is foaming at the mouth to publish the Nunes memo. Democrats insist the memo is a distortion of the underlying intelligence regarding the FBI, but the Department of Justice also warns that publishing this underlying intelligence — which would be necessary to refute Nunes’ allegations — “would be extraordinarily reckless” and compromise national security.
A side effect of Nunes’s campaign to discredit Trump’s investigators is to threaten to burn down the credibility and effectiveness of federal law enforcement. Here is the point that is largely absent from this drama: This is all happening because Paul Ryan wants it to happen.
Ryan’s role in the Trump administration’s ongoing destruction of governing norms has been largely invisible, but it is vital. Ryan, of course, made his national reputation as a wonk-hero, Kevin Kline’s regular-guy accountant turned accidental president in Dave. That reputation has been tarnished by a number of intervening events, including the supposed deficit hawk’s shepherding of a massive deficit-increasing tax cut, but Ryan has managed to retain some of his original aura. Perhaps most important, even though he holds wide-ranging powers in his role as House Speaker, he is still treated like a fiscal policy specialist. He is therefore able to ignore Trump’s misdeeds, even when those that implicate him directly and require his active cooperation.
I found eight Ryan press conferences or one-on-one interviews since CNN reported on his meeting to support Nunes over the FBI and the DOJ. Ryan held press conferences on January 9, January 11, January 17 (with other House Republican leaders), and January 18. He conducted interviews on C-Span on January 11, CBN and Fox & Friends on January 19, and Face the Nation on January 21.
During all these interviews, reporters generally asked Ryan over and over again about taxes, the budget, the possibility of a government shutdown, and immigration policy. Some of the questions were very probing. The only question pertaining to Trump’s scandals came at the January 11 press conference.
A reporter asked Ryan if he believed the president should cooperate with Robert Mueller if he wanted an interview. Ryan dispatched it very quickly: “I’ll defer to the White House on all those questions. This pertains to them, not this branch.”
That has been Ryan’s stance all along. All the icky stuff Trump does, the corruption and disdain for the rule of law, is Trump’s business. Ryan’s defenders have accepted this and woven it into the broader rationale for conservative acceptance of Trump’s presidency. What are they supposed to do — oppose conservative policy that they agree with?
In fact, there are things Ryan could do — and not just cinematic speeches calling out the president for his misdeeds. The House of Representatives could pass a bill to compel the release of Trump’s tax returns. This has been a pro forma step for major party presidential nominees for four decades. Given Trump’s unprecedented decision to retain his business interests in office, mere disclosure would be a meager step against the possibility for corruption. Democrats have repeatedly introduced bills to disclose the tax returns. Yet the House — Ryan’s House — has blocked every one.
How many people realize that Trump’s tax returns would be public if Ryan wanted them to be public? It’s possible a reporter has asked him why the chamber he controls has supported locking down the tax returns, but if so, I have not found it. (It’s also possible Ryan has conducted an interview since January 4 that I missed.) In October, Gayle King asked Ryan how Trump could say that the tax cuts would increase his own taxes without disclosing his returns, and Ryan just laughed. King did not mention Ryan’s role in keeping the tax returns hidden.
And now, Trump and his allies are circulating absurd lies about the Department of Justice in order to enable the administration to avoid any accountability to the rule of law. The heart of this campaign is the chamber Ryan controls. It is not only or even primarily Devin Nunes, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Fox & Friends that are marching into the fever swamps. The invisible man at front of the march is Paul Ryan.