The speaker of the House strode to his lectern on a recent Thursday to confront another totally normal day on Capitol Hill: health care, tax reform, a president under investigation, rumblings of impeachment.
“Morning, everybody!” Paul Ryan chirped. “Busy week!”
It was indeed: Less than a day had passed since the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the presidential campaign; just a few hours since President Trump angrily tweeted that the investigation was “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”; and only minutes since the Russia-linked former national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had begun defying congressional subpoenas. A few days prior, the president had been accused of revealing sensitive intelligence information to the Russian foreign minister.
As Ryan earnestly touted his party’s work on “landmark federal IT reform legislation,” there was a grim, haunted look in his bright-blue eyes, and it wasn’t hard to imagine why. What ought to have been the salad days of Republican-led government had instead become a ceaseless, disorienting swirl of scandal, 120 days of self-inflicted chaos and crisis.
At the fifth question of the press conference—what was his view on the idea that Republicans might be better off with the vice president, Mike Pence, in the White House instead of Trump?—Ryan shook his head in exasperation. “Oh, good grief,” he said. “I’m not even going to give credence to that.”
“But your members are saying that!” the reporter said. Republican members of Congress were buzzing about this idea, openly wondering, as the presidential mess threatened to consume their careers and priorities, whether it might be possible to remove the president and move on.
Congress, Ryan insisted, was perfectly capable of doing its job. “I know people can be consumed with the news of the day,” he said, as though a potential impeachment were the latest celebrity scandal, or the time everyone was up in arms for 24 hours about avocado toast. “But we are here working on people’s problems every day. We have all these committees that do different jobs, and our job is to make sure that we still make progress for the American people, and we’re doing that. It’s just not what we’re being asked about.”
Ryan listed more accomplishments underway—streamlining the Pentagon, sanctions on Syria, workforce-development programs—and insisted the House could “walk and chew gum at the same time.” But Trump’s troubles have cast a long shadow over the 291 members of his party in the House and Senate, who see their agenda going up in smoke in what is generally a presidential party’s most productive year.
A flawed, unpopular health-care bill is stalled in the Senate, the president’s budget proposal has been dismissed out of hand, and hope is fading for other priorities such as tax reform and infrastructure. “How do you pack all that in?” Senator John McCain asked last week, adding, “So far, I've seen no strategy for doing so. I'm seeing no plan for doing so.” One Republican congressman suggested that what was needed was for the president to throw “a temper tantrum” to get lawmakers to act—this congressman happened to be named Brat.
Meanwhile Democrats sit back and watch it burn, with no small amount of schadenfreude, and the Republicans who never liked Trump see their worst predictions fulfilled. “You bought this bad pony. You ride it,” the anti-Trump consultant Rick Wilson tweeted recently. A staffer to a Senate Republican who did not vote for Trump told me, “We didn’t have high expectations, so we’re not disappointed. We tried to warn you.”
But Paul Ryan, with his long-cultivated persona as the party’s resident idealist, has always had high expectations. He watched last year as Trump ate his party; now he must watch as the president consumes his dreams. “Paul wants to govern, he’s trying to get what’s possible to get done, and he’s got a lot of credibility on the line,” Ryan’s friend Jimmy Kemp, the son of the late former Representative Jack Kemp, told me. “He’s been working on these issues for so long.”
Kemp, who wrote in Ryan’s name on his presidential ballot, described the speaker as burdened but steady. “He’s frustrated and it’s wearing on him, but he’s not throwing in the towel,” he said. “He just has to answer questions about so many things he doesn’t want to answer questions about.”
For the Republicans running the government, Capitol Hill has become a workplace with extremely poor morale. The moderates fear for their careers, while the conservative true believers see little to hope for. When the liberal magazine Mother Jones credited Representative Justin Amash of Michigan with being the first Republican to raise the possibility of impeachment, the office of Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida called to request a correction: Curbelo had gone there first.
But for the most part, his party has not openly turned on Trump. What would be the point? Behind closed doors, a longtime House Republican staffer told me, a few lawmakers still wholeheartedly defend the president; among the rest, there are differing degrees of fatalism. One group thinks it is possible to fight through the crisis, while another is resigned to “a long slow death,” as this staffer put it, potentially culminating in a Democratic-controlled House beginning impeachment proceedings in 2019. “This is like Reservoir Dogs,” the staffer said. “Everyone ends up dead on the floor.”
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