Those old enough to recall the presidential politics of the 1990s may still hear a certain righteous sentence ringing in their ears: "We must uphold the rule of law."
With irrefutable simplicity, those words were uttered in numbing repetition by the Republicans who pursued Bill and Hillary Clinton for years, at a cost of millions, over "scandals" too baroque and too minor to explain.
To honor the American rule of law, they simply had to investigate Whitewater, an obscure land deal that had lost the Clintons $45,000 in the remotest Ozarks, several years before he entered the White House. To honor the rule of law, they had no choice but to impeach Clinton, a sinner the same as many of them, for lying about his trysts with Monica Lewinsky.
And when all of the charges against the Clintons either evaporated entirely or failed in the Senate trial, revealing the hollowness and hypocrisy at the center of those conservative crusades, they still congratulated themselves — for vindicating the rule of law.
From their perspective, at least, that is exactly what they did. Even the president, they told us, had to be subject to a civil lawsuit while serving in the Oval Office. He had to answer a lawful subpoena and testify before a grand jury, like any other American. And he had to be held accountable, according to them, because the rule of law didn't make exceptions, not even for the president.
When Clinton was president, a single phone call from the White House to the Treasury Department was interpreted as obstruction of the Whitewater investigation and brought before the grand jury. The Senate and House held hearings, forcing those involved to testify under penalty of perjury — about one phone call.
Flash-forward to the present and it is obvious that such strict Republican respect for the rule of law has diminished substantially. Now the president himself can publicly threaten and dismiss law enforcement officials who are investigating his campaign. He can fire intimidating tweets at prosecutors, defame them repeatedly, and suggest that he will pardon witnesses against him. And none of the Republicans, except for one or two who are departing public life, ever mentions the rule of law. (Unless they're talking about Hillary Clinton's emails.)
Compare the tiny, obscure Whitewater real estate deal to the Moscow Trump Tower scheme — and the Republican reaction to each of those transactions — and try not to burst out laughing.
The former, of course, was an ill-fated development in the Arkansas backwoods that lost a small amount of money. The latter was a deal hatched between Trump's agents and top Russian officials to build a multimillion-dollar edifice in the middle of an adversary government's capital, including a $50 million proposed gift to the Russian president, while his secret services were seeking to elect Trump president.
Note that this isn't just an abstract criticism of Republicans as a party. Both in and out of Congress, this double standard is embodied by individuals. Many of the same people who once demanded the strictest possible adherence to the harshest interpretation of law — people like Senator Orrin Hatch and former Speaker Newt Gingrich — are insisting that nobody need worry about this president's transgressions.
"I don't care," said Hatch a few days ago. Not only did he mean it but also he expressed the sincere nonchalance of almost all his GOP colleagues. "The rule of law" no longer means what it once did. The Republicans are becoming an authoritarian party — and the rule of law means whatever their feared leader says it does.
This is worse than mere hypocrisy. This is the shadow of tyranny.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.