The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers

It was no surprise when President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE, after federal cops cleared away peaceful protesters with tear gas, walked a block to a shuttered church for a political photo opportunity holding up a Bible.

This kind of thing will likely only get worse so long as Trump feels the need to stave off reelection rejection. It’s his M.O.

But what's the excuse of his fellow travelers, those at the top echelons of this administration and in Congress, who enable him?

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There, marching across Lafayette Square with Trump, was Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperPentagon sends 3 cargo planes to Lebanon filled with aid as questions on blast remain Overnight Defense: Esper says 'most believe' Beirut explosion was accident, contradicting Trump | Trump later says 'nobody knows yet' what happened in Lebanon | 61-year-old reservist ID'd as fourth military COVID-19 death Trump tempers his description of Beirut explosion as an attack: 'Nobody knows yet' MORE, who had earlier urged governors to control "the battle space" against citizens demonstrating about a policeman apparently strangling to death a defenseless African American. And there was National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, who had echoed Trump on police and race in weekend television interviews.

Esper is in the office once held by George C. Marshall. O'Brien is in the office once held by Brent Scowcroft.

These weak men were further diminished by the contrast with Trump’s former defense secretary, four-star Marine Gen. James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Most VA workers find racism 'moderate to serious problem' at facilities l Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war Trump advisers were wary of talking military options over fears he'd accidentally start war: report Trump prizes loyalty over competence — we are seeing the results MORE, who wrote that the president was seeking to divide Americans against one another and posed a threat to constitutional government.

Also walking, in his military fatigues, across the park with the president was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, who at least had the good sense to avoid the photo-op in front of the church. In subsequent days, Esper and Milley, under pressure from colleagues, sought to back away from and qualify their participation.

Another one obediently following the president was Attorney General William BarrBill BarrGOP lawmaker calls for Justice Dept. to probe international court Barr pulls over to thank pro-police rally in Virginia Trump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent MORE. His chief concern after a defenseless black man was crushed to death by a cop, seemingly, was his charge — apparently without evidence — that the massive nationwide protests to the slain George Floyd were planned and organized by left-wing anarchists. Barr failed to mention the documented activity of trouble-making right-wing extremists.

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The attorney general, once a respected conservative, is turning the department into a Trump appendage. He co-opted the Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections and has tapped Republican U.S. Attorneys to conduct inquiries that seem — at least from a distance — designed to exonerate anyone associated with Trump and to implicate Democrats in wrongdoing.

The latest is John Bash, a U.S. Attorney in West Texas, assigned to examine whether Obama-Biden officials misused intelligence resources for political purposes against Trump. Bash was a former special assistant and associate legal counsel in the Trump White House.

The president's chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsPelosi, Schumer slam Trump executive orders, call for GOP to come back to negotiating table Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' Trump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter MORE was there, too. The former congressman likes to parade as an unbiased staunch conservative citing his friendship with the late African American congressman, Elijah Cummings. Never mind that he earlier embraced the racist "birther" charge that Barack Obama wasn't born in America, and now is advocating Trump emphasize “law and order.” 

One chief enabler not in attendance was Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBeirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally Advocacy groups come out against Trump pick for ambassador to Germany US pledges million in disaster aid to Lebanon MORE. During impeachment, Pompeo initially feigned ignorance about Trump's call to the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says Trump executive order is 'a reckless war on Social Security' Trump got into testy exchange with top GOP donor Adelson: report Blumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections MORE; he then had to acknowledge he was actually on the call. The favor was reciprocated last month when Trump fired the department's inspector general who was investigating Pompeo.

Every president chooses a Cabinet and staff he thinks will do the job he wants done; every president has moments of poor judgment and rash impulse. The best staff have been those who know when to say “No,” and who instead challenge the president to higher purpose.

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But the worst enablers are Republican lawmakers, as conservative columnist George Will and Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt have noted; Hiatt called on 21 GOP senators to no longer be "complicit" in this degradation.

They're all, for varying reasons, afraid to do so — none more than the last one Hiatt cited: South Carolina’s Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSeveral GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief MORE. If Graham couldn't stand up to Trump — and muster a full-throated defense — when Trump attacked Graham's mentor, the late John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column CNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' MORE, a profile in courage will never be forthcoming.

It's rare for high government officials to resign on principle. During Watergate, Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus did — and are celebrated years later. When Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden painted into a basement 'Rose Garden strategy' corner Giuliani says Black Lives Matter is 'domestic terrorist' group We have the resources to get through this crisis, only stupidity is holding us back MORE was sexually involved with an intern, his Health and Human Services Secretary Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaExclusive: Democrats seek to increase racial diversity of pandemic relief oversight board The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Fred Upton says it is 'tragic' to see Americans reject masks, social distancing; Russia claims it will approve COVID-19 vaccine by mid-August The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former HHS Secretary Sebelius gives Trump administration a D in handling pandemic; Oxford, AstraZeneca report positive dual immunity results from early vaccine trial MORE forcefully admonished the president about his behavior.

Of course, anyone who admonished Trump would be out the door in an administration that already has a record turnover.

By contrast, religious leaders have stepped up to this latest outrage. Russell Moore, a top official of the Southern Baptist convention, said he was "brokenhearted and alarmed" over Trump using the Bible as a prop.

Washington's Episcopal and Catholic bishops also strongly criticized the man who referred to the New Testament’s Second Corinthians as “Two Corinthians,” trying to use places of religion to fan political discord.

Which raises the question: We know Trump’s enablers have lost their spine, but perhaps their souls are at stake too?

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct an error. The original misidentified one of the men who resigned during Watergate. It was William Ruckelshaus.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.