The GOP’s Strange Silence on an Indicted Democrat

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors bestowed on Republicans what seemed like an election-year gift: charging a senior House Democrat in a competitive district with accepting $600,000 in bribes and acting as a foreign agent. For a party clinging to a threadbare majority in the House, the indictment offered an obvious opportunity for an America First attack. Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, who prosecutors say acted on behalf of a Mexican bank and the government of Azerbaijan, is now the second Democrat in recent months—after Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey—to be accused of doing the bidding of foreign interests.

Yet in the past week, the GOP has been strangely quiet about Cuellar. No one in the party leadership has denounced him. Speaker Mike Johnson, fending off an attempt on his job from the far right, certainly could have used the distraction. But he hasn’t mentioned Cuellar once. Donald Trump even praised him, suggesting that President Joe Biden had sent the FBI after “the Respected Democrat Congressman” because Cuellar had criticized the administration’s handling of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Cuellar denies the charges.)

In interviews over the past several days, strategists in both parties posited theories as to why Republicans were passing up an easy attack on Democrats. The most popular comes back to Trump: The GOP is worried that calling out Cuellar will draw more attention to its leader’s legal woes. But that hypothesis goes only so far. Trump’s trials could hardly take up more attention than they already do, and today’s Republicans don’t typically shy away from being called hypocrites. The more troubling explanation might have less to do with the GOP’s self-interest than with the state of political corruption in America—and it suggests that lawmakers might start to abandon even the pretense of policing themselves.

The Republican reaction to Cuellar’s charges has fallen well short of the deluge some Democrats expected. The National Republican Congressional Committee has sent out emails pressuring House Democrats to call on their colleague to resign, and multiple party operatives told me that they would use the indictment to try to unseat him this fall. “There’s no doubt this is a gold mine,” Zack Roday, a Republican consultant working on a number of House and Senate races this year, told me. But few Republicans have called for Cuellar to be sanctioned. One of them, ironically, is the GOP’s most infamous exile, former Representative George Santos, the accused fraudster who was expelled from the House in December. He wants his ex-colleagues to mete out the same punishment to Cuellar.

Just one current member of Congress has called on Cuellar to resign, and that was a Democrat: the former presidential contender Dean Phillips of Minnesota. Cuellar has voluntarily given up his committee assignments while he fights the charges, but he’s said he won’t resign. Democratic leaders have stood by him as he prepares to run for an 11th term in the House this fall.

On some level, the GOP’s restraint is appropriate, Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the good-government group Public Citizen, told me. Like Menendez and any citizen charged with a crime, Cuellar is entitled to a presumption of innocence rather than a partisan rush to judgment. (Santos represented a special case; his expulsion was based less on federal charges than on a damning report by the House Ethics Committee.)

Still, few people I interviewed attributed Republicans’ reticence to a sudden outbreak of responsible governance. Indeed, the GOP’s response—or lack thereof—has been disquieting to ethics watchdogs. “The charges are extremely serious,” Noah Bookbinder, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told me. “It’s certainly easy conduct to condemn when you have an official who is charged with working on behalf of foreign governments, particularly if you’re a party that has a lot of rhetoric about America First.” He noted that the House voted to expel Santos even though his alleged wrongdoing did not implicate national security. “There’s a little bit of whiplash here,” Bookbinder said.

Republicans also trod lightly after Menendez was charged last year, but the reasons were more apparent. Democrats abandoned him almost immediately, and Republicans would have gained little from Menendez’s resignation or expulsion, because his replacement would have been appointed by the governor of his state—a Democrat. (Menendez, whose trial begins today, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.)

Trump’s influence on the GOP’s reaction to Cuellar’s indictment is unmistakable. “Overall, the Republican Party is on fairly shaky ground on ethical issues given who the de facto leader of their party is,” Aaron Scherb, the senior director for legislative affairs at the good-government group Common Cause, told me. “I’m sure to some extent they’re worried about being called out for hypocrisy.” Historically, members of Congress have been wary of policing corruption in the legislature—even among their opposition—for a similar reason: fear that they’ll subject themselves to greater scrutiny. Yet, as Bookbinder pointed out, the former president and his allies “have rarely been reluctant to accuse others of things that he does himself.”

Bookbinder told me that in the years since Trump’s election, the GOP’s retreat on ethics has gone beyond rhetoric. Advocates at CREW have found that Republican lawmakers are becoming more reluctant to co-sponsor anti-corruption legislation, even those who had prioritized the issue before Trump became president.

Because Trump remains a viable White House contender despite his many indictments and ethical breaches, Republicans may have concluded that voters simply don’t care all that much about corruption. What hasn’t worked on Trump, this thinking goes, won’t work on Cuellar. If that logic prevails, Congress would lose any political incentive to hold itself accountable.

Another possible explanation for Republicans’ silence is that Trump’s jeremiads against the “weaponization” of the Justice Department have penetrated not just the GOP electorate but its officials as well. “We actually do believe the Justice Department is corrupt,” one high-ranking Republican campaign strategist told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the party’s private thinking. The strategist said that even though Cuellar is a Democrat, many Republicans do not want to build on the precedent the House set by expelling Santos before he had been convicted of a crime. “People are nervous,” the strategist said.

But Republicans may have other reasons for holding their fire on Cuellar. One of the most conservative Democrats remaining in the House, he frequently partners with Republicans on legislation and occasionally votes with them on abortion and border policy. “We like him!” the strategist told me. “He’s our token Democrat. He’s good on the border.”

That might be the most charitable explanation for why top Republicans have given Cuellar a pass. But it is not the one that some ethics advocates are inclined to believe. “It’s a sign of a healthy democracy when corrupt conduct draws consequences, and that starts with condemnation,” Bookbinder said. And when politicians hesitate to call out corruption because their leaders are also potentially corrupt? “That’s a sign of a less healthy democracy.”

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