Since Donald Trump was sworn in on Jan. 20, I've heard a deafening silence from most Republicans in Congress, the ones who supposedly function as a check and balance on the president's power. Despite widespread conflict of interest concerns about Trump's refusal to divest from his businesses, House Republicans haven't seen anything about that as worthy of concern. Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told angry constituents, questioning why the Utah congressman wasn't interested in looking into the issue, that "the president, under the law, is exempt from conflict of interest laws."
Until recently, this hands-off approach appeared to be the the view of many Republican leaders on concerns regarding the Trump administration. When news broke about reported contact between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officers or revealed that Michael Flynn, the president's initial national security adviser, had misled the vice president about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador discussing Russian sanctions, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told reporters that he didn't think there was need for an investigation.
However, something changed after the Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the campaign and had failed to disclose this information when under oath during his confirmation hearing.
While they didn't go as far as many Democrats' calls for Sessions to resign, some top Republicans were swift in coming out in favor of Sessions' recusal from any ongoing investigation into Russian hacking or the Trump campaign's connections to it — and Sessions followed through and recused himself Thursday afternoon.
AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself— Jason Chaffetz (@jasoninthehouse) March 2, 2017
The Attorney General's recusal doesn't massively impact investigations in and of itself, nor do the revelations of his contact with the Russian ambassador prove his or the president's guilt. But the change in outlook from Republicans is important, and it makes this an important moment for the Trump administration.
When Trump entered office, Republicans in Congress, including the many who were opposed to Trump's candidacy, seemed ready to stand by the president, even with many of his excesses flouting conservative orthodoxy, political norms, and social niceties. Yes, there were significant exceptions at different moments, especially from Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and they are worth remembering.
Moreover, there are many reasons Republicans in Congress are not eager to acknowledge or pursue concerns related to the Trump administration. After all, Trump is still very popular among Republican voters that members of Congress depend on for reelection (in fact, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center, he is more popular than Congressional Republicans). Moreover, Republicans in Congress have longstanding legislative priorities they depend on a Republican president for, so they need Trump's support. Perhaps most significantly, party loyalty is still a powerful force in how Washington, D.C. works.
But after the response to Sessions, we know see that such party loyalty is no longer absolute. Republicans have before been willing to break with the Trump administration on Russia, but in this case, they're not simply breaking on policy. They're breaking with the administration on the very ability of the administration to do its job, and in the process allowing a scandalous story to potentially get bigger. I believe the ties of party loyalty are beginning to fray.