Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., delivers a speech at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), June 3, 2016 in Singapore.
Photo by Wong Maye-E/AP

John McCain’s incomplete pushback against the Trump White House

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been fairly busy of late pushing back against Donald Trump and assorted White House moves. When the president nominated Vladimir Putin’s closest American ally to be Secretary of State, for example, McCain complained. When Trump launched his Muslim ban, McCain complained again.

The Arizona Republican has pushed back on a whole range of related issues – the National Security Council, Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential election, economic sanctions – to the point that Trump felt compelled to snipe back at McCain with a couple of angry tweets.

The senator nevertheless continues to engage on the issues he cares about. Reuters reports today, for example:
Russia is testing President Donald Trump with a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine and the U.S. president should give Ukraine the lethal aid it needs to defend against the attacks, Senator John McCain said in a letter to Trump on Thursday.

Renewed violence flared this week between Moscow-backed rebels and Ukraine government forces that has caused the highest casualty rate since mid-December and cut off power and water to thousands of civilians on both sides of the frontline.

“That this surge of attacks began the day after he talked with you by phone is a clear indication that Vladimir Putin is moving quickly to test you as commander in chief. America’s response will have lasting consequences,” McCain said in a letter to Trump released by his office.
Following Trump’s clash with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, McCain also called Australia’s ambassador to the United States this morning to do damage control.

What the senator isn’t doing, however, is maximizing his influence.

To be sure, the fact that McCain is publicly disagreeing with Trump World at all is more than the public is hearing from most GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. It’s easy to be relatively impressed with the senator’s efforts when we compare him to some of his more sycophantic congressional Republican colleagues.

But when McCain isn’t taking issue with the latest Trump antics, he’s also voting for every Trump nominee, and asking for effectively nothing from the White House in exchange for his support.

And that makes much of McCain’s complaints ring hollow. As he must know, in a 52-48 Senate, every member, especially in the majority, has quite a bit of leverage, which he or she could use to great effect. If, for example, the Arizona Republican were to quietly let the West Wing know he expects something in exchange for supporting Betsy DeVos’ nomination, the administration would likely be eager to make him happy.

Yes, it’s reassuring to see McCain take issue with recent White House actions, but those waiting for real follow through are left wanting. The New Republic recently said the senator is “all bark, no bite,” adding, “He has so far shown no willingness to stand up to Trump in any meaningful way.”

There are actions available to the senator. His embrace of these options is simply a matter of will.


Donald Trump, John McCain and Senate Republicans

John McCain's incomplete pushback against the Trump White House