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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Will GOP choose Trump or honor?

President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders hold

President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders hold a news conference last month on White House grounds. Credit: Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

Will Republican leaders stand up for the United States — and against President Donald Trump — if necessary? That’s been the question underlying the nation’s affairs since it elected a leader who does not respect the Bill of Rights, the judiciary, the independence of the Justice Department, a free press or, really, anything.

It’s not an idle worry. Trump’s administration has been under investigation since his inauguration. A former national security adviser and a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign have pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Two former campaign advisers are under indictment for tax evasion and money laundering. Trump admitted he fired an FBI director to deflate the investigation, then denied it. Trump remains angry that his attorney general, who told the Senate he’d had no contact with Russian officials then admitted he had, recused himself from the process. What’s next?

It was a willingness to stand against President Richard Nixon by members of his party that forced his resignation after he betrayed the nation. Forced to choose, will GOP leaders side with the president? This past week, in the “[expletive]hole” versus “[expletive]house” debacle, we got some answers.

In a heated Oval Office meeting on immigration Thursday, Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham presented Trump with an immigration compromise that is likely acceptable enough to moderates from both parties to pass. It included initial funding for a wall on the Southern border, a path to residency for Dreamers brought here illegally as children, a ban on letting Dreamers sponsor their parents for permanent residency and changes to the diversity visa “lottery” to use slots so people here because of emergencies in their home nations can stay longer.

Afterward, Durbin reported that Trump had said, “Why do we want people from Haiti here?” and “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? They’re [expletive] countries . . . We should have more people from Norway.”

Put aside, for now, the horrendous nature of what Trump said about the poor nations and the white supremacist flavor of his Norway preference.

White House staff, in statements after the meeting, never denied Trump used those words. Trump eventually did disavow the specific expletive, but mostly not the sentiment. Graham, to his credit, rebuffed Trump at the meeting, and has backed up Durbin’s story.

Two other GOP senators who were there, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, issued a joint statement Friday saying, “We do not recall the President saying these comments specifically.”

But on Sunday, Perdue and Cotton’s memories evolved. Perdue said Trump “did not use that word” and Cotton, of the term, said, “I didn’t hear it.”

The mystery may have been solved Monday: it was reported that Perdue and Cotton had heard Trump say “[expletive]house,” not “[expletive]hole,” and thus felt comfortable attacking Durbin and stabbing fellow GOPer Graham in the back to repay his honesty. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also said in a Senate hearing Tuesday she “did not recall” “[expletive]hole” being used.

Graham has no good reason to lie about this, and his story, along with Durbin’s, has not changed.

You can’t, reasonably, forget hearing such words from the president. You can’t, morally, lie about whether you did. From Perdue, Cotton and Nielsen, the willingness to do so shows what we can expect anytime they are forced to choose between Trump and the nation.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.