President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday morning, in which Trump provided cover for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, elicited some heated criticism from leading Republicans in Congress. This prompted an obvious question: Would Republicans put their money where their mouth is and actually use their power to punish Trump?
Well, House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked that question at Tuesday presser — and he made it clear the answer was no, at least as far as the GOP leadership was concerned.
Here’s the key exchange between Ryan and a reporter:
RYAN: I understand the desire and the need to have good relations. That’s perfectly reasonable. But Russia is a menacing government that does not share our interests and does not share our values. And I think that should be made very, very clear.
REPORTER: What could you do? You guys are a co-equal branch of government. What could you do to make sure he [Trump] doesn’t do something ...
RYAN: Here’s what we can do, and here’s what we have already done — which is to put sanctions on Russia. ... We’d already put in place sanctions. If the [House] Foreign Affairs Committee or the Financial Service Committee — or the Senate Banking Committee — think that there are other sanctions that we have not yet put in place on Russia, I’m more than happy to consider those.
Note how weaselly Ryan’s answer is. The question wasn’t, “What are you doing to punish Russia?” It was, “How can you constrain Trump from cozying up even more to Putin?” That isn’t a problem that can be solved by new sanctions. It would require passing legislation that puts limits on the president’s power to change US policy on a whole host of foreign policy issues (like Ukraine or Syria), or block Trump from firing special counsel Robert Mueller and ending the Russia collusion probe.
But doing something like that would, of course, provoke a major fight with Trump. Ryan is so unwilling to do that he won’t even think about proposing such measures. Instead, he moves to the safer ground of hypothetical new Russia sanctions that may never actually emerge and that wouldn’t really constrain Trump from changing US policy on Russia.
This speaks to a vital point about the GOP’s “backlash” against the Putin meeting. Ultimately, congressional Republicans mostly care more about staying in Trump’s good graces — and avoiding a fight that could jeopardize their legislative agenda and anger the pro-Trump base before the upcoming midterm elections — than about the ways that Trump is taking a hammer to decades of US foreign policy on Russia and other issues.
Republicans in Congress simply place a higher value on party unity than on the foreign policy principles they claim to stand for. If they didn’t, Ryan would actually be talking about new laws to constrain Trump.
That isn’t a value judgment, or even necessarily a criticism. There’s a case, from the Republican point of view, for refusing to cross Trump even when he tramples on years of conservative orthodoxy.
But Ryan isn’t making that case. He, and the rest of the mainstream GOP, is trying desperately to pretend that you can be anti-Putin and pro-Trump. But Monday’s presser made it clear that’s impossible.