the national interest

Congressional Republicans Don’t Even Pretend to Stand Up to Trump Anymore

Photo: Tom Williams/AP Images

After John McCain’s death, as official Washington set its flags at half-staff, Chuck Schumer proposed another kind of tribute to the iconic senator and war hero: that the Russell Senate Office Building, currently named for a segregationist southern Democrat, be renamed for McCain. His Republican colleagues, however, demurred.

They could not admit that their real reason for opposing the honor was that McCain had crossed Trump. Nor could they defend Senator Richard Russell’s ardent white supremacy, which extended to denouncing laws to ban lynching. Instead, they flailed about, inventing pretexts on the fly. Russell “did so many other things,” Georgia Republican David Perdue rhapsodized. “He was a big supporter of the Great Society, the War on Poverty. Now, we all know those things failed, but he was a big champion of them.” So here was Perdue arguing that Russell deserved to be honored for his role in crafting what Perdue’s party regards as a historic debacle. Even Lindsey Graham proclaimed that the best way to honor his best friend would somehow be to not name a Senate building after him: “Instead of worrying about what to name for him … let’s be more like him.”

What was at stake in this absurd stance was something large: Donald Trump was once again demanding a display of submission from his party. And once again, he received it. As in a Stalinist show trial, the preposterousness of the statements made them more rather than less valuable. Senate Republicans demonstrated their willingness to turn on a colleague out of fealty to Trump, and all the better for him that they did so out of transparent fear rather than conviction.

The GOP elite’s icy disposition toward Trump has melted slowly and in stages over his first year and a half in office. In the past few weeks, the process has accelerated. Whatever restraining force Trump’s party exerted against him has now almost completely dissipated.

Take, for instance, the election-security bill both parties worked together to craft this summer. The measure would have given top state election officials security clearances to view warnings about hacking threats, convened a technical advisory board to share best practices, and increased the use of paper ballots that could be checked in case of a hack, along with other steps that are both obviously needed and just as obviously unobjectionable. But the White House came out against the bill, so Republicans dutifully paused work on it.

Senate Republicans have likewise all but abandoned the wall of defense they had once maintained around Attorney General Jeff Sessions. An original true believer in Trump, Sessions was the first senator to endorse him, later joined his campaign, and has enthusiastically carried out Trump’s agenda of rolling back Obama-era police reforms. But Sessions had to recuse himself from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign, since Sessions had been part of it — and this one area turns out to be the only thing within Sessions’s purview that Trump cares about. Trump demands and expects the attorney general to gin up criminal charges against Trump’s enemies while ignoring misdeeds by Trump and his allies. The president told an interviewer, “The only reason I gave him the job [is] I felt loyalty.”

What has prevented Trump from firing Sessions until now were the quiet warnings from the attorney general’s former Republican Senate colleagues that they would refuse to confirm a successor. “If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay,” Graham insisted a year ago. Now Republicans have signaled a passive acceptance, treating Trump’s impulses as completely normal behavior and ignoring his manifestly corrupt intent in replacing the top federal law-enforcement official. “The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in,” says Graham now, as if Sessions had lost Trump’s trust for a legitimate reason, and not for the crime of observing the basic ethical norms Trump wishes to shred.

At the moment, the party’s narrow Senate majority might prevent Trump from replacing Sessions with a crony who will hobble the Mueller probe.
Republican senators are urging Trump to wait until after the midterms, at which point the Senate is likely to grow much Trumpier.

Of the 35 seats up for reelection, 26 are held by Democrats, ten of them defending seats in states Trump won in 2016. The terrain is so heavily red that Republicans might gain senators even if Democrats enjoy a national wave. And even if Republicans fail to add any seats, the Senate’s composition is certain to change. McCain is being replaced with a Republican appointee, and fellow Trump critics Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are retiring. New Trump-skeptical Republicans stand little prospect of joining Congress — Trump has effectively wiped them out.

A recent list circulated by congressional Republicans to members of their party demonstrates the degree to which Trump’s party has internalized its role as enabler of the president’s misconduct. Republicans have used their majority in Congress to quash almost any oversight of the administration. The list tallied all the scandals and acts of gross incompetence that Democrats would like to investigate if they win control of at least one chamber of Congress.

Democrats, the list warned, would look into “Trump’s tax returns,” “Trump family businesses — and whether they comply with the Constitution’s emoluments clause, including the Chinese trademark grant to the Trump Organization,” “Trump’s dealings with Russia, including the president’s preparation for his meeting with Vladimir Putin,” “The payment to Stephanie Clifford — a.k.a. Stormy Daniels,” and on and on.

The point of this impressive litany of scandals was not to show that Republicans have abdicated their basic responsibilities or that the public has a right to information about which business interests directly pay the president and his family, exactly which sources of blackmail he is vulnerable to, and so on. The point was to help Republicans warn their own side what might come to light if Democrats win the midterms. The prospect of Congress acting independently has “churned Republican stomachs,” Axios notes. That the GOP should or could restrain Trump’s corruption has become unfathomable.

As Republicans’ scant interest in inhibiting Trump has waned, his authoritarianism has grown more uninhibited. He threatened Google with unspecified consequences unless it tweaks its algorithm to drive readers toward more pro-Trump stories. He has edged closer to issuing a pardon of Paul Manafort as a reward for his former campaign manager’s refusal to cooperate with prosecutors. And he ranted in a meeting with leaders from the Christian right that antifa will launch violent attacks against them unless Republicans win in the midterms. Even more delusional than Trump’s fear of coordinated nationwide attacks by a minuscule faction of left-wing street-fighter wannabes is the premise that somehow they would base their attack on the election results. (“Put the clubs and shields away, fellas,” the antifa activists gathered at their election-viewing parties will say after CNN projects Democrats falling short of 218 House seats.) And he has increased the frequency of his Lenin-esque charges that the parts of the news media his party does not control are the “enemy of the people.”

Trump’s latest maniacal outburst coincided with — and was likely caused by — the deepening investigations. Trump’s longtime “fixer,” Michael Cohen, confessed to charges in open court, and for the first time, the phrase unindicted co-conspirator began to circulate in connection with Trump himself. It may turn out to be one of the more resonant phrases of this sordid era. As Trump plunges deeper into his war against the rule of law, the Republican Congress marches along beside him, unindicted co-conspirators all.

*This article appears in the September 3, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!