When will Republicans in Congress step up and start restraining Trump?

Editor's note: The following column first appeared in the Hill newspaper and on the Hill.com.

In advance of Michael Flynn’s guilty plea last week, President Trump started acting out.

He retweeted a fake and vulgar message about Muslims. He sabotaged a meeting with Democrats on a budget deal and then spread word that shutting down the government might help him politically.

He suggested — falsely, of course — that MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough is a murderer. And he injected himself into the firing of TV anchorman Matt Lauer after allegations of sexual harassment, while turning a blind eye to a GOP candidate suspected of pursuing a 14-year-old girl, Alabama’s Roy Moore.

At this hellish moment when the president is threatening to drag the country beyond chaos, why are congressional Republicans failing to restrain the Republican in the White House?

Some Republicans cower in fear of Trump’s supporters but a surprising number are just quitting Congress.

As of last week, 44 members of the House of Representatives and two members of the Senate have announced that they will retire, resign, or run for another office by the end of the 115th Congress.

Thirty of the 44 heading for the door are Republicans. Most of them are good-government Republicans like Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. They deserve thanks for years of good public service.

But at the critical moment when the nation is dealing with an out-of-control Republican in the White House, GOP members are leaving instead of standing up to a dysfunctional president of their own party.

Of course, they’ve also said nothing about the do-nothing brand of Republican leadership in Congress.

“Those of us who came to Congress to change Washington for the better through good governance are now the outliers,” said New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo in his retirement announcement. “Today a vocal and obstinate minority within both parties has hijacked good legislation in pursuit of no legislation.”

LoBiondo is right about that “obstinate minority.” But he is wrong in saying it is on both sides of the aisle. The hard-right Freedom Caucus belongs to only one party — the GOP.

I cannot help but wonder how different American politics might look if LoBiondo and other moderate Republicans had refused to allow all Republicans to be defined by the Freedom Caucus, talk radio conspiracy theories, Roy Moore and Trump’s latest tweet.   

Every Republican in this Congress will have to reckon with the part they played in allowing Capitol Hill to devolve into a pit of political polarization.

Some did it to save their own seats from a more extreme Tea Party or Freedom Caucus candidate who threatened them with a primary.

As then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said of House Republicans in 2011, “half of them think like Michele Bachmann,” — the Tea Party firebrand who was then a congresswoman from Minnesota — “and the other half are afraid of [a primary challenge from] someone who thinks like Michele Bachmann.”

It is also true that some congressional Republicans played along with the extremists to get attention from conservative websites and talk radio shows, setting themselves up for post-Congress careers as paid speakers or TV talking heads.

Still others stood silent because gerrymandered congressional districts made it easier to win reelection even if it meant ignoring the best interests of the nation.

This descent into political cowardice did not happen overnight.

Where were the unequivocal denunciations of false and racist charges that President Obama was not born in the U.S.? Where was the rebuke of the man who used that conspiracy theory as a springboard to the presidency, Donald Trump?

Where were the Republican congressional leaders when the country needed them to stand up to and shout down the likes of Bachmann and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) when they caused a pointless government shutdown that tarnished the nation’s credit rating?

Silence is assent, ladies and gentlemen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin should send ‘thank you’ cards to Republicans in Congress for their silence. It opened the door to Russia’s “covert influence” campaign against our country.   

“You can’t create fissures in a society,” former CIA Director General Michael Hayden told Bill Maher on HBO earlier this year.

“Covert influence works when fissures exist and you drive the wedge into the pre-existing fissures,” Hayden said.

Republicans in Congress through the Obama years led the way in creating those fissures, dividing the country by making a sport of finding ways to obstruct the Democrat’s agenda.

They also wasted time generating baseless outrage by spreading conspiracy theories in the guise of investigations — from Fast and Furious to Benghazi.

A September Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way their nation is governed with the GOP in control of Congress, the White House and Supreme Court. Just 28 percent said they were satisfied.

These numbers track with the reliably abysmal Congressional job approval numbers — 74 percent disapproval, 13 percent approval, according to the latest Real Clear Politics Average.

Journalist E.J. Dionne and scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann tackle polarization in the age of Trump in their new book, “One Nation After Trump.”

“Donald Trump was not really someone who emerged from the swamp on his own,” Ornstein told PBS NewsHour in an interview last month. “There were decades that built towards the Trumpism that led to all of this.”

When will Congressional Republicans stop this game and start restraining Trump?

Juan Williams currently serves as a co-host of FOX News Channel’s (FNC) The Five (weekdays 5-6PM/ET) and also appears as a political analyst on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace and Special Report with Bret Baier. Williams joined the network as a contributor in 1997.