Re­mem­ber when con­ser­va­tives be­lieved no one was above the law?

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - OPINION -

Some­thing about Pres­i­dent Trump causes con­ser­va­tives to eat their own.

Henry Kerner was a model con­ser­va­tive. A mem­ber of the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety, he clerked for a Rea­ganap­pointed judge. As a Repub­li­can staffer, he led House and Se­nate in­quiries into the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice’s tar­get­ing of con­ser­va­tive groups, Oba­macare and the “Fast and Fu­ri­ous” gun-run­ning pro­gram. Trump re­warded him by nam­ing him head of the Of­fice of Spe­cial Coun­sel.

Then, Kerner went af­ter White House coun­selor Kellyanne Con­way — and ev­ery­thing changed.

On Wednesday, with Kerner at the wit­ness ta­ble, con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans at­tacked his in­tegrity and ethics, and ac­cused the stal­wart con­ser­va­tive of car­ry­ing wa­ter for pro­gres­sive groups.

Rep. Jim Jor­dan (Ohio), the ranking Repub­li­can on the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee, ques­tioned the “mo­tives” of Kerner, who just a couple of years ago was the lead Repub­li­can staff in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the same com­mit­tee that was now re­ceiv­ing his tes­ti­mony. Kerner’s of­fice “doesn’t like that [Con­way] is con­ser­va­tive,” Jor­dan explained. “She’s be­ing tar­geted be­cause she’s good at what she does.” Jor­dan al­leged that Kerner was do­ing “the same thing” the IRS did to con­ser­va­tives: “They ap­plied one stan­dard to their ide­o­log­i­cal friends, a dif­fer­ent stan­dard if you were con­ser­va­tive.”

Kerner could not re­sist point­ing out the ab­sur­dity: He was the au­thor of the Se­nate Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity’s 37-page re­port ex­co­ri­at­ing the IRS for tar­get­ing tea party groups.

“No kid­ding,” re­torted Jor­dan, unim­pressed.

Fel­low Repub­li­cans piled on their com­mit­tee’s erst­while Repub­li­can staffer.

Rep. Mark Mead­ows (N.C.) ac­cused Kerner of act­ing out of per­sonal pique (“Kellyanne Con­way made you mad”) and of act­ing be­cause of “heat from the me­dia and from some on the left.” Mead­ows al­leged that Kerner, a Har­vard Law grad­u­ate, had not been “con­sis­tent with the law.”

And then there was Rep. Paul Gosar (Ariz.). “How can we take any­thing you say as ob­jec­tive when you have a his­tory of ques­tion­able ethics?” he asked.

Kerner said Gosar’s al­le­ga­tion — that Kerner ac­tu­ally sup­ported the IRS’ tar­get­ing of tea party groups — was “debunked,” “false” and “just a smear.” Said the wit­ness: “I’m here be­cause of the tea party vic­tory. I got the job on this com­mit­tee in ‘11.”

The fe­roc­ity of the smear against a fel­low con­ser­va­tive was matched only by the ir­ra­tional­ity of it. Kerner told law­mak­ers he had “no choice” but to rec­om­mend that Con­way be dis­missed be­cause of her “clear, re­peated and know­ing vi­o­la­tions of the Hatch Act,” which bars fed­eral em­ploy­ees from us­ing their of­fices for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. Se­nior of­fi­cials in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had com­mit­ted only a couple of Hatch Act vi­o­la­tions dur­ing the en­tire eight years of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, Kerner tes­ti­fied, but Con­way alone had al­ready com­mit­ted 13. Con­way has mocked the 80-year-old law, say­ing, “Let me know when the jail sen­tence starts.” She has re­fused to tes­tify be­fore the com­mit­tee and now faces a sub­poena.

Her vi­o­la­tions weren’t close calls. Speak­ing in her of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity, she re­ferred to Joe Bi­den as “Creepy Uncle Joe,” the Democrats as a “hot mess,” Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates as “wood­chips” and more. Con­way’s vi­o­la­tions “erode the prin­ci­pal foundation of our demo­cratic sys­tem — the rule of law,” Kerner wrote.

Such is the pull of par­ti­san trib­al­ism that, given the choice be­tween de­fend­ing the law and de­fend­ing a Trump mouth­piece, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers chose the lat­ter. Not that this is sur­pris­ing. Jor­dan’s cam­paign spent more than $10,000 at Trump prop­er­ties last year, and Politico re­ports that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are speak­ing at a Jor­dan fundraiser next month. (Kushner did sim­i­larly for Mead­ows.) In turn, these law­mak­ers de­fend the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion when it breaks the law — not just in nu­anced cases such as spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s re­port, but even in the case of Con­way’s stark il­le­gal­ity.

Kerner pointed out the hypocrisy of his for­mer com­mit­tee al­lies. Con­ser­va­tives called for the re­moval of Kath­leen Se­be­lius, an Obama Cab­i­net mem­ber, for a sin­gle Hatch Act vi­o­la­tion; they now ex­cuse Con­way’s 13. But this was lost on his au­di­ence.

Rep. Carol Miller (W.Va.) ex­cused Con­way by say­ing she spoke “the truth” when she called Bi­den “creepy.”

Rep. Glenn Groth­man (Wis.) pro­posed that Con­way was tar­geted be­cause she’s “a suc­cess­ful con­ser­va­tive woman.”

And Jor­dan mocked Kerner’s claim that Con­way’s ac­tions “‘erode the prin­ci­pal foundation of our demo­cratic sys­tem.’ You re­ally be­lieve that?”

“Yes, I do,” Kerner replied, “be­cause it shows that the rule of law only ap­plies to the lit­tle peo­ple.”

Re­mem­ber when that no­tion — that no­body is above the law — was a con­ser­va­tive be­lief?

Fol­low Dana Milbank on Twit­ter, @ Milbank.

Dana Milbank

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