With many congressional Republicans racing to put some distance between themselves and the White House’s sympathetic view of white nationalist demonstrators, the country is locked into a now-familiar dynamic. Liberal critics are demanding that GOP figures actually do something to indicate displeasure with Trump, while GOP defenders say it’s hardly reasonable to expect Paul Ryan or Jeff Flake to abandon longtime conservative policy priorities simply because Trump has embraced them.
There’s some fairness to the defenders’ stance. Republicans mainly vote with Trump because Trump mainly agrees with them on a broad range of public policy issues — especially the desirability of cutting taxes, reducing social assistance, regulating businesses and gun owners less stringently, and trying to make abortion illegal — and they still agree with him on those policies, no matter what he says about Charlottesville.
But that agreement doesn’t give Republicans a free pass for inaction. There’s a lot that Congress could do to restrain the things about Trump that are odd and abnormal without Republicans needing to abandon any of their longstanding policy commitments.
Indeed, we even have a concrete example of the kind of thing that needs to be done from back in July, when overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress voted to tie Trump’s hands on Russia sanctions. This is how, in theory, the American system of checks and balances is supposed to work.
But mostly it hasn’t been working. Republicans could easily change that, without jeopardizing the policy priorities they share with the president.
Congress could (and should) check Trump on many fronts
The way congressional Republicans could demonstrate seriousness about distancing themselves from distasteful aspects of the Trump administration would be to take some legislative action on those aspects. Here are some possibilities:
- Congress could pass a law creating a special prosecutor position to investigate Russia issues with a fixed term, so Trump couldn’t arbitrarily fire Robert Mueller.
- It could take up some of the suggestions of former Office of Government Ethics chief Walter Shaub to give the OGE more independence and statutory authority to force changes.
- Legislators could pass a law mandating meaningful financial disclosure from presidents and presidential candidates, and a companion law requiring presidents and vice presidents to follow conflict of interest laws that apply to other White House staff.
- They could tighten anti-nepotism laws so that a president’s clearly unqualified children are not acting in an official government capacity regardless of their salary situation.
- They could restore funding that Trump’s Department of Homeland Security eliminated for de-radicalization programs aimed at white nationalists.
- Congressional committees could hold hearings on the potential threat of white nationalist groups to the country.
- Republican members of Congress could make their anti-Trump statements on Fox News and conservative talk radio outlets, delivering the message to the people who need to be persuaded that Trump is wrong rather than simply distancing themselves from him in the eyes of mainstream audiences.
These seven steps would not, on their own, undo the potential damage of a Trump presidency. But they would greatly mitigate the threats posed by Trump’s personal corruption, alarming flirtations with neo-Nazis, and sketchy Russia-related behavior, without in any way compromising conservative policy principles. They could also, of course, formalize and solemnify their disagreement with Trump though an official resolution of censure.
The risk, of course, is that taking these steps would anger Trump and that an angry Trump would not be an effective collaborator on other legislative items or a useful party leader in the coming midterm campaign. In other words, it’s not that standing up for the integrity of American institutions would come at zero cost to the conservative policy agenda. But it’s also not the case that walking the walk on these matters would require Republicans to abandon their policy views.
Republicans are mostly doing the opposite
The actual Republican approach to Trump is largely the reverse of this. Steve Stivers, the Ohio representative who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee and will thus be leading GOP midterm efforts, is happy to distance himself from Trump’s racism on Twitter.
I don't understand what's so hard about this. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn't be defended.— Steve Stivers (@RepSteveStivers) August 15, 2017
But the very same day, Stivers’s NRCC staff was sending fundraising emails touting their solid support for Trump against nefarious left-wing protesters. Republican committee chairs say they won’t be doing any hearings on white supremacist groups. Ryan verbally defends Mueller, but doesn’t take action to strengthen his hand.
Instead, congressional Republicans are continuing to press investigations into Hillary Clinton’s FOIA compliance and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s involvement with the FBI investigation of her email server.
Nothing, of course, is being done to try to make sure that Trump administration officials are fully complying with federal document retention and email use policies. Nor is anything being done on the various more significant oversight matters — like to what extent Trump is using the powers of the presidency to directly enrich himself.
Congress faces a staggeringly easy choice
It’s of course no surprise that members of Congress don’t want to pick fights with the Trump administration on this stuff. Trump is extremely popular with their party’s base, and both Fox News and Rush Limbaugh appear to have made an editorial decision to defend whatever it is Trump decides he wants to do on any given day.
Still, it would be a mistake to define this as any kind of difficult choice.
The politically worst thing that could happen to a Republican member of Congress who chose to make a substantive effort to rein in Donald Trump’s racism and corruption is that he or she would lose a congressional seat in a primary. The United States of America, fortunately, is not filled with homeless and destitute former members of Congress. On the contrary, members get generous pension benefits and normally enjoy lucrative post-legislative employment opportunities in America’s burgeoning lobbying sector.
Meanwhile, there is virtually no historical precedent for a sitting president successfully mounting a primary campaign against an incumbent member of Congress.
In other words: Members who wanted to do the right thing would face a very small chance of suffering relatively minor personal consequences for themselves. But so far they have overwhelmingly chosen not to run that risk, and there is no sign that the events of the past week have changed that.