Another viewpoint editorial: The courthouse parade of GOP officials courting defendant Trump is a disgrace

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks during a news conference May 7 at the Capitol in Washington. Johnson is among Republican leaders who spoke last week outside of former President Donald Trump’s criminal trial in New York.

Chicago Tribune

The procession of Republican Party standard-bearers through a New York City courtroom to pay fealty to and express outrage on behalf of Donald Trump hasn’t been surprising. But it has been depressing.

On May 14, it was Mike Johnson’s turn. Yes, the speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency, saw fit to take time out of his packed schedule to attend the trial of a former president charged with attempting to cover up hush-money payments to former adult entertainer Stormy Daniels to keep her from exposing their alleged 2006 tryst in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Johnson demeaned his storied office in so doing. The House speaker does more than just represent his party in the people’s chamber. He is the head of the institution itself. Indeed, unlike the Senate where none but a duly elected senator can serve as majority leader, the speaker of the House need not even be a House member.

For a short time trial balloons were floated for the potential election of Trump himself as speaker following the fratricidal ousting last year of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. If Trump had decided he wanted the job — he didn’t, thank heavens — God only knows what GOP House members would have done.

For readers who might have missed a name or two, here is a list, definitely not exhaustive, of Republican officials or notables who’ve traveled to New York to show their support for the beleaguered criminal defendant in Courtroom 1530 at 100 Centre Street. In addition to Johnson, we’ve seen North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, former GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, and U.S. Reps. Byron Donalds and Cory Mills, both of Florida. No less than three of those — Vance, Burgum and Ramaswamy — have made little secret of their desire to run on the GOP presidential ticket with Trump.

Vance’s subservience has been particularly noteworthy given his past criticism of Trump. Vance called himself a “Never Trump guy” during the 2016 election. He since has said he was wrong about Trump and on May 13 ardently defended him and attacked star prosecution witness Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and “fixer.” Cohen was the alleged middleman who paid Daniels $130,000 for her silence and later was repaid by Trump’s company, which then listed the payoff as a legal expense on multiple documents.

The conversion of Vance perhaps is the single best example of how Trump has transformed the Grand Old Party into a cult of personality rather than a coherent set of principles and values. Vance already was rich, having written the best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” and having garnered handsome payments from a stint as a venture capitalist, when he decided to run for Senate in Ohio in 2022. But those credentials weren’t nearly enough to succeed in today’s GOP absent the kind of about-face on Trump that most others of Vance’s stature would have found humiliating.

We’re embarrassed for him. By all means make your case for being Trump’s running mate, but not during Stormy Daniels’ salacious remembrances.

That said, we’re not singling out Vance here. Numerous other Republicans have checked their self-respect at the door in order to keep their power perches in Trump’s GOP. The ones who were unwilling, or in some cases weren’t subservient enough for Trump’s liking, found themselves exiled to the political wilderness. These are the dynamics we see in authoritarian systems, not the greatest democracy on the planet.

And for whose benefit is this homage paid? A man alleged to have bedded a porn star while his wife was home with his infant son and then employed intermediaries such as Cohen and former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker to cover up that misdeed (as well as others).

Trump sits sullenly in the New York courtroom, muttering audible expletives, as witnesses including Daniels and Cohen testify under oath to this disgraceful tale. Trump then publicly rails against them, the judge, the prosecutor and anyone else who dares to challenge him and later complains when the judge threatens to jail him for contempt. This “gag order” is not the outrage Trump’s slavish defenders assert. Like other defendants, Trump has every right to defend himself. But he must do so under oath and per courtroom rules.

Many legal and political observers believe this case is the least compelling of the four criminal indictments of Trump. But that doesn’t change the fact that Trump, former president or no, is subject to the laws of this country and to the ultimate judgment of a jury of his peers.

Yes, his peers. We elect presidents in the United States, not kings or rulers. Our constitutional framers warned against just this sort of cultish phenomenon and set up a system to thwart its progress.

Trump’s legal woes are principally of his own doing. It shouldn’t be surprising that a man who has spent a career willfully pushing the envelope in his business dealings, personal affairs and late-in-life turn as a politician has found himself in this position — forced in a nondescript courtroom to listen to an alleged former porn-actress paramour detail the spectacle of a wannabe Hugh Hefner, awkwardly wooing her while clad in satin pajamas.

The final chapter of our nation’s unfortunate Trump era is yet to be written. Trump could wind up in jail. He could end up back in the White House. Perhaps both will occur although hopefully not at the same time for all our sanity.

But we don’t need to wait for the finale to conclude that the GOP “leaders” accompanying Trump on this unseemly road discredit their party and betray the many Americans who believe in Republican principles of limited government and the rule of law and increasingly find themselves without representation.