WASHINGTON — There is really only one issue in American politics at this moment: Will we accelerate our way to the end of the Trump story, or will our government remain mired in scandal, misdirection and paralysis for many more months — or even years?
There is a large irony in the politics behind this question. The Democrats' narrow interest lies in having President Trump hang around as close to the 2018 midterm elections as possible. Yet they are urging steps that could get this resolved sooner rather than later. Republicans would likely be better off if Trump were pushed off the stage. Yet up to now, they have been dragging their feet.
The reports that Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn may finally be concentrating Republican minds.
They certainly focused the decision-making of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who announced late Wednesday afternoon that he was naming former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russian interference in the election.
Speaker Paul Ryan signaled the changed mood earlier in the day not by what he said but by what he didn't.
Ryan has been embarrassingly eager to defend Trump, but he did not rush to his support this time. Instead, Ryan called for a "sober" and "dispassionate" response, warned against "rushing to judgment," and insisted that "our job is to get the facts." When word got out (probably from Comey or his sympathizers) of what Trump had said to the FBI director about Flynn, Republicans (like Rosenstein) were left with no choice but to pursue the matter further.
The speaker only expressed faith in Trump when prompted by a shouted question at the end of his news conference. After some thought, he replied with a soft "I do" when asked if he had "full confidence" in the president.
Nothing could be worse than slow-walking the Trump inquiries. The evidence is already overwhelming that he is temperamentally and intellectually incapable of doing the job he holds. He is indifferent to acquiring the knowledge the presidency demands and apparently of the belief that he can improvise hour to hour. He will violate norms whenever it suits him and cross ethical lines whenever he feels like it.
He also lies a lot, and has been perfectly happy to burn the credibility of anyone who works for him. White House statements are about as believable as those issued regularly by the Kremlin.
And Trump's friend Vladimir Putin could not resist interfering yet again in our politics. Putin offered to provide Congress with a record of our president's meeting with top Russian diplomats to shed light on exactly what highly classified intelligence information Trump shared with them. Adding to the insult, the Russian leader spoke of a "political schizophrenia" taking hold in the United States that was "eliciting concern" in his country.
Perhaps Putin's taunt will elicit increasing concern among Republicans that our nation cannot endure much more of this.
The surest sign that the bottom is falling out from under Trump was a Wall Street Journal editorial that declared flatly: "Presidencies can withstand only so much turbulence before they come apart." The Journal warned that Trump was on the verge of betraying his supporters, "as his presidency sinks before his eyes."
Any GOP leader losing the support of the semi-official organ of Republican conservatism should know that his partisans are headed to the exit ramps.
But how can we speed our nation's escape from the catastrophe Trump has created? The Senate Intelligence Committee took an important step by announcing a bipartisan invitation to Comey to testify. The sooner he tells his story, the better.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., proposed that both parties demand that Congress get any memos, tapes and transcripts shedding light on Trump's meetings with the Russian diplomats and with Comey.
The naming of an independent counsel cannot become an excuse to pull back on Congressional fact-finding. The country needs to know if there was collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia whether or not a crime was committed. And Democrats should ask Republicans to join them in pledging opposition to any appointee to head the FBI who is not universally seen as immune to Trump's influence.
It shows how far along we are that fears are already being voiced of a political backlash from his supporters if Trump is railroaded out of office. But delaying the process of getting to the truth will harm our country far more. And Republicans who throw up roadblocks will be hurt most of all.
— E.J. Dionne's email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.