Where, exactly, is the red line for Republicans in Congress right now?
We have a president with pronounced authoritarian tendencies, who believes he “alone can fix it”; who signs sweeping executive orders reportedly without even briefing relevant Cabinet members on the logistical, humanitarian and national security consequences; who directs his staff and surrogates to lie about the tiniest and most ridiculous and easily fact-checkable of details; and whose staffers brought us to the brink of a constitutional crisis when they ignored federal court orders.
Democrats have few tools at their disposal to obstruct President Trump, let alone force him to double back, given their minority status in both chambers of Congress. They could slow business to a crawl through procedural measures. But that comes with longer-term strategic risks, and more to the point, can only slow things down; they cannot reverse actions the executive branch is already taking.
Which is why it’s ultimately up to Republicans to show leadership, whether through words or (preferably) actual legislative deeds.
So when will they stand in Trump’s way?
Not, apparently, when he violates their stated commitment to fiscal conservatism by offering a tax plan that would add $7 trillion to deficits over a decade. Or when he pledges to spend tens of billions of dollars, paid for by neither Mexico nor any domestic offsets, on a border-wall boondoggle.
Not when he withdraws the United States from a major trade pact among 12 Pacific Rim countries that would have weakened China’s influence and that, more to the point, pro-trade Republican leaders had championed.
Not when they learn he had boasted about sexually assaulting women, comments that at one point some Republican politicians said forced them to withdraw their political support. Right before they pledged it anew.
Not when he practices parody-worthy levels of executive overreach, supposedly the greatest and most unforgivable sin of his Democratic predecessor, by violating immigration laws laid down by Congress.
Not when he picks a needless fight with our peaceable neighbor and third-largest trading partner, Mexico.
Not when he bullies and threatens private companies into making operational decisions according to his centrally planned liking, rather than letting free markets guide them, as Republicans have long advocated.
Not when he refuses to disclose conflicts that might compromise the economic, security and political interests of this country. And most shockingly: not when he cruelly shuts our doors to refugees, Iraqi translators who helped safeguard American lives, students, dissidents, scientists, doctors and others in what appears to be – indeed, what Trump surrogates have claimed is – an immigration ban targeting Muslims.
A mere year ago, Republican leaders condemned Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States. House Speaker Paul Ryan said it was “not conservatism.” Then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence called it “offensive and unconstitutional.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “completely and totally inconsistent with American values.” Then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio agreed, saying, “It violates a lot of the things that we think about our country.”
There you have it: Then, Trump’s proposed Muslim ban was decried as not conservative, not constitutional, not American. If there were ever a red line for Republicans, it seems to have been crossed Friday.
When a version of the ban became reality, however, Ryan endorsed it. Now-Vice President Pence smiled and applauded as it was signed. McConnell said he doesn’t “want to criticize the Trump administration for improving vetting.” And Rubio offered some cowardly pablum about needing “clarity” on “unanswered questions” about the ban.
Three days after the order was signed, 80 congressional Republicans had explicitly endorsed this once un-conservative, unconstitutional, un-American ban, more than three times the number who publicly opposed it. The vast majority of congressional Republicans refused to choose a side or remained silent.
Trump has repeatedly violated the principles and policy goals his co-partisans on the Hill claim to hold dear. Scratch that. Members of the legislative branch have ceded these powers – and their duty to check and balance, along with most of their vertebrae – quite willingly.
And in exchange for what, exactly?
Party unity, perhaps? Or maybe the promise of tax cuts for the wealthy, an agenda item apparently more important than safeguarding the Constitution. Or fleeting protection from the ire of Trump’s fan base.
Trump once bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and voters would let it slide. I’m starting to wonder if congressional Republicans would, too.