From time to time a congressional Republican — usually one with a foot out the door — steps forward to suggest that maybe his or her party is going down the wrong path in the Trump era.
But the most recent entry in that procession comes from a rather unexpected place: the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) has in recent months carved out something of a novel profile in the GOP. He’s sharply undercutting some of its central political efforts, and he’s doing so from the very segment of the party that has driven the party in that direction.
He has called into question the wisdom and constitutionality of its impeachment-related efforts; he expressed faith in the FBI and Director Christopher A. Wray as much of his party was pillorying them; and he is among the relatively few Republicans to treat the criminal charges against former president Donald Trump seriously, even saying a conviction would be disqualifying in his mind.
Buck’s most recent foray into tossing a wrench into the GOP’s political machinations came Wednesday on CNN. With House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) leaning more toward an impeachment inquiry of President Biden than ever before, Buck called it “impeachment theater.” He even accused the speaker of distracting from key appropriations issues.
“What [McCarthy is] doing is he’s saying ‘there’s a shiny object over here, and we’re really going to focus on that,’ ” he said.
Buck’s argument was more practical than anything — he suggested that the evidence simply wasn’t there yet — but he also said that impeachment was being wielded for dishonest reasons.
“I don’t think it’s responsible for us to talk about impeachment,” he said. “When you are raising the I-word, it sends a message to the public, and it sets expectations.”
It’s the second time in a week that Buck has complained about such alleged impeachment-related theatrics.
Last week, he tried to throw cold water on a nascent attempt to supposedly expunge Trump’s impeachments — which it appears can’t actually be done. He suggested he might vote for it if forced to take a position, but that it was more or less meaningless and a political move with potentially adverse consequences.
“It’s probably wise for the Republican base,” Buck said. “It’s not wise in terms of constitutional history. It’s not wise in terms of precedent that it sets.”
The week before that, Buck continued efforts to gently nudge his party away from its guns-blazing criticisms of federal law enforcement and Wray.
At a hearing, he tried to take down the temperature by noting that Wray is, in fact, a Republican; despite this, Republicans have cast Wray and the FBI as persecuting both Trump and conservatives. And afterward Buck, a former local prosecutor, went on CNN and flatly rejected that core argument.
“Do you think that the FBI is pursuing conservatives unfairly?” host Jake Tapper asked.
“No, I don’t believe that,” Buck said. “I think Director Wray is a good person. I think that he’s doing his very best to make sure the FBI follows the evidence. And I think that the FBI is largely treated unfairly in how it has been perceived and portrayed in the public.”
Relatedly, while his party has decried a supposed two-tiered justice system regarding Trump and has avoided dealing with the merits of the case against him, Buck has provided some of the most significant comments suggesting the scrutiny is indeed warranted and that Trump’s conduct has been severe.
“I think the allegations are very serious. I think there were national security implications from having documents in an unsecure area,” Buck said, adding: “He hid documents, purposefully putting them in a shower, purposely putting them on — on a stage. So there — there clearly is an intent to hide.”
He added that he had “a huge amount of respect” for Justice Department prosecutors and said, “I’m sure they will do the right thing.” He also said he wouldn’t support having “a convicted felon in the White House.”
It’s hardly the first time that a Republican has offered such counterprogramming, calling into question their party’s devotion to Trump and its growing tendencies toward conspiracy theories and bare-knuckle politics. But Buck does so from a rather unusual perch.
Not only is he a member of the House Freedom Caucus, but he’s someone who has long been allied with some of the elements of the party he is now breaking from. He’s played into the idea that Democrats might “steal” elections. He’s floated the idea that global warming is a “hoax.” And there he was the same day as his most recent CNN interview leading the charge against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, invoking the label “traitor” and later blaming him for Americans dying of fentanyl.
Flashback to 2010, and Buck was an insurgent, tea party-aligned Senate candidate who upset the GOP establishment favorite in a primary (ultimately losing the general election in a disappointing result, like other tea party candidates).
But Buck might still have something in common with the Romneys, Flakes and Corkers of the world, and that’s being a short-timer freed of political considerations. He hasn’t said whether he’ll seek reelection, and he raised just $39,000 last quarter — a very low number for an incumbent. He also said in 2020 that he didn’t expect to be in Congress much longer.
But the fact that Republicans in such a position have often provided such commentary is also telling. And either way, the likes of Buck saying these things — and apparently making a concerted effort to broadcast them — is a significant and undersold emerging subplot in today’s GOP.