It's a remarkable moment in Washington. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is on Capitol Hill. The President of the United States is tweeting about forthcoming missile strikes against Syria. The future of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein -- and the broader Russia probe being run by special counsel Robert Mueller -- is murky.
What a time to be a member of Congress! Right!? Guys??! RIGHT?!?!?!?
Here's the truth: In response to this absolute avalanche of news on major issues, Congress has seemed to shrink rather than rise to the challenge. It's as if the legislative branch of government has just thrown up its hands and decided that its work here is done.
"Congress is good at two things: Doing nothing and overreacting," remarked Missouri Republican Rep. Billy Long during the Zuckerberg hearing on Wednesday.
They appear to be opting for the former right now.
Let's go through it point by point.
*Zuckerberg's Facebook is battling through its roughest patch since its founding -- facing serious questions about a massive data breach of user information and broader philosophical issues about its responsibility (or lack thereof) to society.
Given that swirl of news and controversy -- coupled with the fact that the Facebook founder rarely interacts with members of Congress -- these two days of congressional hearings (the Senate Tuesday, the House Wednesday) were seen as a huge opportunity for Congress to assert its accountability role.
Tuesday's hearing in the Senate was something far less than that. The only thing proven was that senators -- for the most part -- have nothing beyond the most basic and surface-level understanding of how Facebook works, what it does and the problems it presents societally.
On the House side on Wednesday, the level of knowledge was somewhat higher -- emphasis on somewhat -- but, because of the large numbers of members who wanted to speak and the time constraints that placed on them, the hearing was largely filled with politicians trying to dunk on Zuckerberg. Rhetorically speaking, of course. (Sidebar: I would pay to watch a bunch of House members try to literally dunk on Zuckerberg. And I can't imagine I am the only one.)
*Trump tweeted this on Syria on Wednesday morning: "Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and "smart!" You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!"
Kind of a big deal, right? While there has been a debate about whether or not Trump needs an updated Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for whatever he has planned for Syria, it's not been terribly fervent nor has it drawn much attention.
And Trump seems to have zero interest in securing Congress' support before he makes a decision on how to retaliate against the chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people.
As for whether Trump tweeting about the possibility of a missile strike, congressional Republicans were nonplussed on Wednesday. "I am glad he is considering retaliatory action," Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn told CNN's Manu Raju. "Because we have seen that red lines that go on in forest just encourage further provocative action by Assad. So, it is unconventional to be sure. Something I doubt any other president would have done."
*Reporting out of CNN and The New York Times on Tuesday night makes clear that a) Trump has been considering firing Mueller for quite some time -- and, according to the Times, decided to do so twice only to be talked off of it both times, and b) Trump is actively weighing whether to get rid of deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who oversees the Mueller probe. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself -- much to Trump's dismay --from the Russia probe due to his role as a prominent surrogate for Trump's 2016 campaign.)
There's a whole lot of rhetoric coming from Congress about the firing of Mueller -- "political suicide" is what Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) called it -- but less action. Yes, a bipartisan group of senators have introduced legislation to codify the idea that Mueller can only be fired for good cause and by a Justice Department official. (White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that Trump has sought advice on the topic and now believes it is within his purview to fire Mueller, if he so chose.)
But Cornyn -- and other Senate GOP leaders -- have expressed deep skepticism about the necessity of the legislation given their belief that Trump won't fire Mueller.
Cornyn is set to have dinner with the President tonight, but he told CNN he doesn't plan to bring up his opposition to Trump firing Rosenstein and Mueller.
"I just don't think it would be appropriate to talk about," he said.
So, yeah. In fact, the biggest news coming off of Capitol Hill this week was about someone leaving it: House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan insisted his departure was the result of a desire to spend more time with his family. Which, well, sure.
But it's hard to imagine the current climate in Congress -- and the likelihood of major Republican losses this fall -- didn't play a role as well.
And with Trump -- who's prone to doing whatever he wants -- sitting in the White House, how the politicians on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue act is more important than ever. Which makes their relative absence from the playing field all the more concerning.
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