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McDermott: As Trump reaches new depths, congressional Republicans strain not to see

There’s a psychological phenomenon in which a person with perfectly healthy eyes can suddenly lose the power of sight. Called “hysterical blindness,” it can be caused by extreme stress or emotional trauma.

If you’re a congressional Republican, it apparently can also be caused by being asked to defend the rantings of a president you know to be dangerously unfit for office.

The latest evidence of that unfitness came after 75-year-old protester Martin Gugino, in Buffalo, New York, was shoved to the ground by two police officers on June 4 and left to bleed, unconscious, on the pavement. Days later, with Gugino in a hospital and the video going viral, America’s president decided (as he has before) to slander a private American citizen with a loopy conspiracy theory.

“Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday. “75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment … I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”

To be clear: This is factually baseless, technologically ridiculous (the “scanner” was a cellphone) and under normal circumstances would land Trump on the business end of a libel suit. Except sitting presidents effectively have total immunity from libel or slander claims. There are reasons this normally makes sense, but in Trump’s case, it’s like handing a loaded grenade launcher to a 5-year-old.

This, like so many other Trumpian degradations of the presidency, should elicit outrage from any public official with a molecule of decency. What it has elicited instead, from almost every single Republican member of Congress, is … silence. Not criticism, not defense, just an omerta worthy of mobsters.

The fact that Trump chooses to spread so much of his crazy via Twitter has historically given his fellow Republicans an out. “I haven’t seen it” is a standard GOP response to Trump’s latest slander-tweet. They’re lying — of course they’ve seen it, or at least have seen media coverage of it — but consider their unsavory choices: defend this sewage, thus further condemning their political souls; or criticize Trump, risking the wrath of his thumbs. So they take the ostrich’s way out.

The New York Times, in a desperate bid to scale the GOP wall of silence, printed out copies of Trump’s lunatic tweet about the battered protester, so when they got the standard “I haven’t seen it” from congressional Republicans, they could just hand it to them.

Didn’t work. “Even faced with documentary evidence of the president’s inflammatory remark,” the Times reported, “most Republicans averted their gaze on Tuesday, declining to comment as they darted through the hallways of Capitol Hill and appearing to wish away what was on paper in front of them.”

To understand why most Republicans scatter like feral cats at the sight of a question about Trump’s latest outrage, consider what they would otherwise have to do. Conservative radio host and Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt does it frequently.

Hewitt, a law professor and clearly a smart guy, defends Trump from an intellectual perspective — as if Trump is a normal, rational president. The result generally looks like an ambitious mother desperately trying to get her tantrum-throwing toddler into a three-piece suit.

In a recent column, for example, Hewitt gamely denies Trump’s undeniable contempt for the Constitution, while defending his crashing failure of coherent national leadership in the pandemic as constitutional adherence rather than gross incompetence. “The president,” Hewitt writes, “faced with anti-federalist demands that he seize unilateral command of the pandemic response, patiently defended the power that lies with state governors, as the Framers envisioned.”

Ah, yes, that’s it! This wasn’t a constitutionally ignorant man-child flailing for some way to push the coronavirus catastrophe onto someone else’s plate. No, this was a deeply thoughtful chief executive, deliberatively — “patiently” — addressing the crisis within the philosophical framework of federalism that he so reveres. Perhaps pausing to re-read Madison and Hamilton in the process.

Puh-leese. Trump very likely couldn’t define the word “federalism” if asked point-blank — let alone explain how he reconciles it with, for example, his extra-constitutional threat to “override” governors who don’t reopen virus-endangered churches quickly enough for his liking. Or how his supposed constitutional fidelity jibes with gassing peaceful protesters in violation of the First Amendment, or threatening the free press, or refusing to accept congressional oversight, or brazenly flouting the constitutional prohibition on monetizing the presidency. The list goes on.

If you’ve hitched your political wagon to this mess, how do you defend it? Hewitt has chosen to spin an unlikely conservative fantasy: Trump, ensconced in some book-lined study, no TV screens in sight, intently contemplating Federalist No. 45. Most congressional Republicans, perhaps understanding that this doesn’t pass the guffaw test, opt instead for their Sgt. Schultz impersonations: “I know nnnothing!”

And they see nothing. Which would be hysterical, if it wasn’t so dangerous.

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