As Donald Trump takes aim at the Western alliance, and the American president finds it easier to forge ties with authoritarian dictators than democratically elected allies, congressional Republicans have a decision.
A small handful of GOP lawmakers have decided to speak up in ways the White House won’t like.
“To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values,” [Arizona Sen. John] McCain wrote. “Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.”
A day later, after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro inexplicably suggested there’s a “special place in hell” for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote, “Fellow Republicans, this is not who we are. This cannot be our party.”
Yesterday afternoon, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) shared some related thoughts about her home state’s close ties with our neighbors to the north. Though the senator carefully avoided any references to the president or his tantrum, Collins said, “In Maine, we have a special relationship with Canada…. We must preserve this friendship.”
And while these sentiments were nice, and they’re preferable to the indifference we heard from the overwhelming majority of congressional Republicans, the choice facing GOP officials is not between speaking up and silence. It’s been action and inaction.
Reacting to Peter Navarro’s ridiculousness, Flake insisted the comments are not reflective of today’s Republican Party, but what if they are? What does the senator intend to do about it, exactly?
Individual senators have a fair amount of power, and individual senators in a 51-49 chamber have quite a bit more.
Yes, McCain is in poor health and not in a position to exercise his full authority on Capitol Hill, but that only increases the leverage available to each of his Republican colleagues in what is effectively a 50-49 Senate, at least insofar as day-to-day governing is concerned.
One GOP senator, concerned about the direction of his or her country and party, could start holding hearings that ask difficult questions of the Trump administration. That senator could introduce measures intended to rebuke and/or restrict the White House. That senator could start blocking nominees, including judicial nominees, until he or she is satisfied that the president is being responsible.
Right now, none of this is happening.
It’s not exactly a secret why we don’t see steps like these: most Republican officials actually agree with Trump, and those who don’t are too afraid of their party’s base, Fox News, and would-be primary rivals to do anything meaningful.
And so we see a few well-intentioned tweets – and nothing else.
Whether GOP officials appreciate this or not, their reluctance to act directly contributes to the antics they disapprove of. Trump is like a child testing boundaries: he sees the line he’s not supposed to cross, ignores it, and takes stock of the consequences. If the pushback, especially from his allies, is muted, the president draws a new line and starts the process over again.
The more Republicans do little more than quietly wring their hands, the more the problem will persist and intensify.