President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey was a momentous act, with Democrats and parts of the media already invoking Nixon, Watergate, and the Saturday night massacre. But the muted, ambivalent response from Republicans in Congress is a noteworthy and entirely predictable reflection of the political climate in the United States.
Few Australians appreciate that Trump – despite dismal approval ratings from Democrats and Independents – boasts a very high approval rating of 84 per cent among Republican voters. According to Gallup’s weekly approval tracker, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans has not dropped below 81 per cent during his presidency.
Consequently, Republican senators and representatives have little incentive to speak out against a president who remains popular with their base. So, while many Republicans would no doubt be privately aghast at Trump’s decision to fire Comey, only a handful of Republicans have been prepared to express dismay in the hours since Comey learnt of his firing while delivering a speech to FBI employees.
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona tweeted “I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it”. The revealing disclosure that Flake had tried to back the president is indicative of the mood within a Republican Party that is looking to support Trump whenever possible.
Scarcely any Republicans went further than Flake, but some Senators who criticised the president occupy important positions in the august chamber. Senator John McCain, the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed disappointment that Comey was removed and renewed his call for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Senator Richard Burr, the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee that oversees that FBI, said he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning” of Comey’s dismissal, a sentiment echoed by Senator Ben Sasse. A small number of Republicans joined these calls, but the total count of those who are outright critical stands at no more than a dozen among over 280 GOP members on Capitol Hill.
Some Republicans offered outright and unqualified support for the decision. Representative Ron DeSantis, of Florida, called it the “right decision”.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his deputy John Cornyn offered their tacit support to the president. Such moves by the Republican Senate leadership no doubt reflect a desire to remain onside with the White House, especially as they prepare to spend the next several months walking the political tightrope on the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.
The Democrats’ response has been furious, noisy and in keeping with their pattern of ‘resistance’ to Trump. By my crude count, almost all of the 48 Senate Democrats have expressed outrage, with many calling it a cover-up attempt and demanding a special prosecutor investigate the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. The picture is the same in the House.
Stark partisanship in Trump’s Washington is on full display. Democrats stand united against the president, while the overwhelming majority of Republicans remain compelled by political incentives to support him (or at least refuse to publicly criticise him). Expect this to continue.