Column: Could Senate Republicans Be Growing a Spine?

  • Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, second from left, talks with reporters as she heads to a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

For The Washington Post
Friday, November 30, 2018

Developments this week — from the discovery of Paul Manafort’s funneling of information about the Russia investigation to President Donald Trump, to evidence that Trump was seeking a lucrative business deal in Russia during the 2016 campaign, to the administration’s refusal to allow CIA Director Gina Haspel to brief Congress on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (a contributing columnist for The Washington Post) — should remind Republicans how foolhardy is their blind allegiance to Trump.

They have carried his water and have echoed his accusations regarding the FBI, special counsel Robert Mueller and the president’s financial connections to Saudi Arabia and Russia — without any idea of whether Trump is telling the truth. As Mueller throws out evidence of Trump’s duplicity bit by bit, Republicans increasingly appear as though they have been either unwittingly or wittingly duped. Given the potential exposure for Trump and for Republicans, as well as the results of the 2018 midterms, you wonder whether they might finally choose to inch away from him.

There are a few signs that might be underway. On judicial nominees, the Senate had second thoughts about confirming Thomas Farr, who seemed to be an impresario of voter-suppression techniques, to a U.S. district court seat. The vote was first postponed when at least three GOP senators — Tim Scott of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — voiced concern, though they all voted to move Farr’s nomination forward on Wednesday. But Scott, the Senate’s only African-American Republican, came out against Farr on Thursday, which seemed to dash his nomination.

As for legislation protecting the special counsel’s inquiry, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., so far, is the only one willing to hold up legislation until he gets a vote. However, in light of the most recent Russia revelations and Trump’s increasingly frantic attacks on Mueller (not to mention his arguably unconstitutional appointment of a political hack as acting attorney general), the argument for insulating Mueller becomes stronger. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said on Thursday: “Almost daily, the president’s Twitter feed is littered with baseless accusations about the investigation. President Trump re-tweeted an image of several of his political opponents, including Deputy Attorney General (Rod) Rosenstein, behind bars. Can you believe that?”

If the president is willing to dangle a pardon for Manafort, fire both FBI director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as order (unsuccessfully) that Mueller be fired, what makes Republicans think he won’t revive his plans to fire Mueller, as the special counsel’s case gets stronger by the day? If the Senate would move on that legislation, it would be a positive sign that Republicans are unlikely to take Trump’s word as gospel. It would also, of course, help stave off a constitutional crisis.

Then we have the Saudi issue. Trump’s attempt — in concert with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — to corral senators into supporting the president’s decision to give Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman a free pass on Khashoggi’s murder has backfired dramatically. The New York Times reported: “Furious over being denied a C.I.A. briefing on the killing of a Saudi journalist, senators from both parties spurned the Trump administration on Wednesday with a stinging vote to consider ending American military support for the Saudi-backed war in Yemen. ... It was the strongest signal yet that Republican and Democratic senators alike remain vehemently skeptical of the administration’s insistence that the Saudi crown prince cannot, with certainty, be blamed for the death of (Khashoggi).” While the 63-37 vote to move the measure along is impressive, it remains to be seen whether the Republicans will fold when asked to approve the measure.

Republicans, to be sure, are not yet exercising due diligence in oversight of the president (with the possible exception of the Senate Intelligence Committee). There have been no hearings on emoluments, no subpoenas for Trump’s tax returns, no hearings on his disastrous handling of Hurricane Maria or on the administration’s policy of family separations along the southern border. But if the GOP can grow a spine and defy Trump on judicial nominees, protection for Mueller and Saudi Arabia, senators might find that the president cannot actually do much other than sputter at them. One or two acts of defiance, in turn, might encourage further independent steps, and maybe by 2020, the Senate Republicans will actually be fulfilling their constitutional responsibilities. We can only hope.

Jennifer Rubin is an opinion columnist for The Washington Post.