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Confronting the GOP's 'fever,' Republican senators have a choice

Treating fevers isn't always easy. Some are inclined to wait. Others believe in proactive steps -- such as taking medicine -- to lower the temperature.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. 

Even by Donald Trump standards, yesterday's missive was extreme. In the wake of federal criminal indictments of two Republican members of Congress, the president complained publicly that the Justice Department has hurt the re-election prospects of two "very popular" GOP incumbents.

At face value, Trump appeared to endorse the political corruption of the federal judicial system, suggesting that the president's political allies should be shielded from prosecutions.

To their credit, a handful of congressional Republicans made clear that they weren't comfortable with such an abuse of the American rule of law. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said of Trump's tweet, "This is not the conduct of a president committed to defending and upholding the constitution, but rather a president looking to use the Department of Justice to settle political scores."

One of Flake's colleagues was even more forceful in his response.

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has criticized Trump's statements and moves in the past, responded to the president's tweets with a statement titled: "The United States Is Not Some Banana Republic.""The United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice -- one for the majority party and one for the minority party," Sasse said. "These two men have been charged with crimes because of evidence, not because of who the president was when the investigations began. Instead of commenting on ongoing investigations and prosecutions, the job of the President of the United States is to defend the Constitution and protect the impartial administration of justice."

The words were welcome. The evidence of meaningful actions, however, remains elusive.

In case this isn't obvious, following John McCain's passing, the Senate's Republican majority currently stands at just 50 members. Any one GOP senator, were he or she to take a courageous stand, could wield enormous power over the political process on Capitol Hill.

Indeed, both Flake and Sasse are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has taken aggressive steps to advance one of the Republican Party's top priorities -- confirming Donald Trump's far-right judicial nominees -- and which is holding confirmation hearings right now on Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nominee.

Flake and Sasse could, today, announce that they'll withhold their support for all judicial nominees until lawmakers take meaningful steps to curtail Trump's abuses. Given the current makeup of the chamber, GOP leaders would have no choice but to give Flake and Sasse anything they wanted.

The question isn't whether they have power; it's what they intend to do with that power.

And if the answer is, they'll release strongly worded criticisms, that will be unsatisfying.

I'd ask Flake and Sasse, among others, to consider the circumstances we find ourselves in. A president of dubious legitimacy, facing an ongoing criminal investigation, is hiding documents about his Supreme Court nominee. The same president is simultaneously trying to use federal prosecutions as a political weapon, while asking the Senate to give a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court to a jurist whom a plurality of Americans oppose, and who's argued that presidents shouldn't ever have to face judicial scrutiny.

Are GOP senators who recognize the severity of the circumstances prepared to do anything other than issue rhetorical admonishments?

Over the weekend, after services for McCain, the New Yorker's Susan Glasser ran into Flake, who said, in apparent reference to his party's direction, "The fever will break eventually. It has to."

But treating fevers isn't always easy. Some are inclined to wait, let the body fight its infection, and hope that the fever will eventually subside. Others believe in proactive steps -- such as taking medicine -- to lower the temperature.

Will the GOP's fever "break eventually"? Maybe, maybe not. What I want to know is what Republicans like Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse are prepared to do to treat their party's ailment.