Memo to Republicans: ‘Trump first’ is not the same thing as ‘America first’
Congressional Republicans are suffering, as I have noted in the past, from a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. They’ve seen what’s happened to “the formers” who crossed the bully in the White House — e.g., former senator Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and former representative Mark Sanford, R-S.C., — and all they can think is: There but for the grace of God… . Not even the loss of 40 House seats in 2018 and President Trump’s wretchedly low approval numbers can shake his iron grip on their fragile psyches. It’s as though their kidnapper had left them alone in the house, but they’re too scared to step outside.
Republicans did not have to wait 35 days to end the pointless government shutdown. They could have cooperated with Democrats to keep the government open, if they had been willing to cross Trump. But only six Senate Republicans were willing to do so. Now, Republicans could send a strong signal to Trump that they will not support the misuse of his “emergency” powers to build a border wall that has not been funded by Congress. But while some Republicans have spoken out, others, such as the opportunistic Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., have actually encouraged the president toward a reckless usurpation of Congress’s power of the purse.
Republicans also could have passed legislation to revoke the president’s authority to levy tariffs by absurdly labeling allies such as Canada a national-security threat. But even though most Republicans are uneasy about Trump’s tariffs, they haven’t acted to stop his protectionist outbursts.
The Senate Judiciary Committee actually passed bipartisan legislation to prohibit special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to give it a floor vote. Now, Sens. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have introduced a bill that would compel the Justice Department to publicly release Mueller’s report. Good luck getting a vote from a majority leader who seems to view the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body as a wholly owned subsidiary of America’s Least Deliberative President.
Another piece of legislation that McConnell can easily bottle up, should he so desire, is a bill, approved 357 to 22 by the House last week, that would prevent Trump from pulling out of NATO. All but 22 House Republicans voted for it, and Senate Republicans would be hard-pressed to vote “nay,” given that NATO membership has been a bedrock of American foreign policy for 70 years. But McConnell may save his fellow Republican senators from making what is — to them — a difficult choice between the president’s pro-Russian prejudices and the dictates of national security.
When confronted with that very choice on Jan. 16, only 11 Senate Republicans dared to defy Trump. The vote was on the administration’s decision to lift sanctions against Rusal and two other companies owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska — a one-time employer of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a close confederate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Deripaska remains personally sanctioned, but, after an intensive lobbying campaign by Deripaska’s companies, the Treasury Department struck a deal to lift sanctions on them in return for a reduction of his ownership stake to below 50 percent. The justification for this move was the impact on the global economy if sanctions were imposed on the world’s second-largest aluminum manufacturer, but there are other ways to keep aluminum prices from spiking. Trump, for instance, could lift his destructive steel and aluminum tariffs.
Instead, the Treasury struck what appears to be a sweetheart deal with Deripaska. The New York Times, which obtained a copy of the confidential agreement, reported that it “may have been less punitive than advertised,” because “the deal contains provisions that free [Deripaska] from hundreds of millions of dollars in debt while leaving him and his allies with majority ownership of his most important company.” A former Treasury official who was not involved in the case told me that it was “shocking” that the U.S. government would approve such an agreement, because it “does not follow the spirit of the legislation or stated policy objectives and sets an incredibly bad precedent for weak enforcement.”
It was entirely appropriate that 136 House Republicans joined with Democrats to override this flawed deal. But in the Senate, the bill fell three votes shy of the 60 needed, because supposed hawks such as Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, in addition to Graham, failed to support it. Even Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, — who in 2012 described Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe” and in 2016 called Trump a “con man” who was unfit to be president — refused, in the crunch, to vote against said con man and said geopolitical foe. With sanctions now lifted, shares in Deripaska’s companies have shot up, handing the oligarch and his friends at the Kremlin a nice windfall.
This is not putting America First. This is putting Trump First, and it has become an unfortunate habit that congressional Republicans need to break. The only thing they have to fear is fear of Trump itself — what President Franklin Roosevelt aptly described, in another context, as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”
Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.”