Jules Witcover: Mild GOP pushback on Trump’s ‘Spygate’

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — It has taken that major Trump whopper — that the FBI planted a spy in the Mueller investigation — to begin to shake the Republican establishment out of the torpor cast by the truth-deficient man in the Oval Office.

The first Republican notable to lift the cloud was House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. After sitting in on an unprecedented White House briefing on that inquiry, he bucked Trump by declaring he saw or heard no evidence of what Trump calls “Spygate.”

The president himself invented the phrase and then began marketing it by saying everyone was using it, right out of some public-relations handbook. “Spygate is in full force!” he tweeted the other day.

But almost at once, House Speaker Paul Ryan volunteered that he agreed with Gowdy, saying he too saw or heard no basis for making the allegation.

Ryan has been widely and increasingly criticized by the Never Trump crowd within the party of becoming a Trump doormat. Finally, he may be beginning to shake off the spell cast on him by the country’s chief snake-oil salesman.

These two gestures, one by Gowdy, the prime peddler of the Benghazi case against Hillary Clinton, the other by the frustrated soon-to-retire speaker, may not be enough to awaken other congressional Republicans. They seem willing to swallow Trump’s whoppers, hoping the new job numbers and record low unemployment figures will get them reelected in the November midterm elections.

But this latest conspiracy theory from the president that FBI spies are plotting his ouster from within is a crass distortion of the agency’s longtime function of tracking down and investigating reports of wrongdoing, regularly brought to them by informants.

James Clapper, the former National Intelligence director who attended the recent briefings, has confirmed that the intelligence community regularly picks up and legally acts on reports of malfeasance brought to them by informants. He called the practice “a fairly benign tool available to the FBI.”

What is particularly despicable about Trump’s latest defensive strategy to save his political skin, whether conceived by him or by his latest legal beagle, Rudy Giuliani, is its insidious nature.

Attempting to cast the country’s chief legitimate law-enforcement body as a rogue agency run amok is a direct assault on American democracy far worse in its implications than Richard Nixon’s heavy-handed, failed attempts in the Watergate scandal to bribe the jailed burglars of the Democratic National Committee.

The purpose of that break-in turned out later not to be just to get dirt on the opposing party. Nixon believed the DNC may have had evidence that he sought to assure his re-election in 1972 by persuading the South Vietnamese to boycott peace talks in Paris, which eventually happened.

President Lyndon Johnson had hoped their cooperative presence might have swung the election to Democratic nominee to Hubert Humphrey. He sent classified evidence of the 11th-hour Nixon mischief to Humphrey, but the latter inexplicably declined to make it public, to LBJ’s eternal chagrin, and Humphrey’s own regret thereafter.

That secret Nixon caper to protect his slim and diminishing lead in the 1972 presidential election was itself outlandish. But it doesn’t compare in ruthless abuse of the American democratic process to Trump’s latest efforts to cast the current FBI as no more than a two-bit collection of free-lancing, self-serving political hacks out to get him.

In any event, it should be clear by now that Donald Trump, as president just as he was as a cutthroat real-estate tycoon in his previous life, will resort to whatever it takes to hold onto the huge political power he won more than a year and a half ago.

This latest move is the best evidence to date that the man in the Oval Office has no regard, or perhaps even no awareness, of what at its core made America great before he brought his anything-goes brand of political leadership to running it.

 Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.