President Donald Trump’s critics view Republican congressmen as his enablers. James Fallows, in the Atlantic, describes their behavior as the most discouraging weakness our governing system has shown since Trump took office. He singles out Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse for scorn because “he leads all senators in his thoughtful, scholarly ‘concern’ about the norms Donald Trump is breaking — and then lines up and votes with Trump 95 percent of the time.”
Another journalist, Ron Brownstein, has written similarly. When various Republican senators objected to Trump’s attacks on MSNBC co-host Mika Brzezinski’s appearance, Brownstein asked what they intended to do about it. Other Trump foes echoed this critique: The Republicans’ stern words were empty.
Most of this criticism is unreasonable.
It fails, for one thing, to account for what the Republicans have done. That includes “mere” criticism, since words matter in politics. Some of those words — such as “we need to look to an independent commission or special prosecutor” (Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski) or “our intelligence committee needs to interview” Donald Trump Jr. (Maine Sen. Susan Collins) — can have a fairly direct effect on what happens in Washington.
But it’s not just words. The Republican Congress held hearings about President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. Most Republicans have supported sanctions on Russia the president opposes.
For the Republicans’ critics, these steps were the least they could do. But they weren’t. The Republicans could have, for example, not held hearings.
It’s unusual for senators to hold hearings into possible misconduct by 1) a president of their party 2) who is still fairly new in office and 3) supported by the vast majority of their voters. Perhaps the Republicans should have taken even more extraordinary action. But they’re falling pitifully short only if the baseline expectation is that they do whatever liberal journalists think it’s their duty to do.
And some things liberal journalists think it’s the Republicans’ duty to do make no sense. Take that 95 percent figure mentioned by Fallows. Was South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham really supposed to vote to keep regulations he considered unwise on the books because he opposes Vladimir Putin? Was Arizona Sen. John McCain really supposed to vote against confirming Alex Acosta as Labor secretary because the president tweets like a maladjusted 12-year-old?
When you complain about how often the senators vote with the president, that’s what you’re saying. Perhaps this is why the complaint is usually made by liberals, who would not want senators to be voting with President Marco Rubio or President John Kasich either.
Besides voting left, what would the Republicans’ critics have them do? Impeach the president? Not even Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, supports that.
“As evidence piles up pointing to the possibility that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Republican lawmakers have largely ignored Democrats’ calls for urgent action and continued about their day jobs,” writes McKay Coppins. The urgent actions he mentions: holding more press conferences about investigations into Trump; voting with Democrats on some anti-Trump resolutions they devised last week; and “issuing subpoenas more aggressively.”
Maybe Republicans should subpoena some people they have not, although some specificity on who should get these subpoenas would be reassuring. I suspect that if the Republicans did issue more of them, the goalposts would just shift. The subpoenas, like the Comey hearings, would turn out not to count as “urgent action.”
None of this means that Republicans are doing all they can and should do to address the concerns that Trump’s presidency raises. Congressmen should, for example, be looking for ways to compel presidents to disclose their tax records, such disclosure being a useful norm that Trump has flouted.
But making a focused and reasonable demand and then building support for it is different from expecting congressional Republicans to sound like the opposition party.