The yawning gap between GOP words and deeds opened even wider on Tuesday, after the congressional Republicans who had denounced President Trump’s conduct in Helsinki on Monday started making the inevitable excuses for doing nothing in response.
“We can’t tell the president what to say. All we can do is make very clear that we disagree with the approach the president has taken and, for the most part, both Republicans and Democrats have condemned the President’s comments yesterday,” shrugged Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.
But that’s not enough now.
Indeed, the increasingly strong rhetoric of congressional Republicans practically demands they take stronger actions. Senator Lisa Murkowski, another of the Trump critics, said on Monday that, by siding with Russia against US intelligence agencies, the president “did not defend America.”
If that’s what Murkowski really believes — that the president is failing in his basic constitutional duty — then it should follow that inaction on her part would be inexcusable. If the president’s conduct is as bad as Murkowski, John McCain, Ben Sasse, Bob Corker, and others have said it is, then they should be considering breaking the glass on some extraordinary measures to protect American interests and ensure that Trump is unable to stop the public from learning the truth about Russia’s 2016 election meddling.
So what can Congress, a coequal branch of government, do? Here’s a start:
As a very first step, they can haul in top Trump administration officials — and the translator who was in the room with Trump and Putin for their private meeting — for the hearings that Senate Democrats have demanded. They should then ensure they are serious, bipartisan affairs and not partisan circuses.
Congress can also pass legislation toughening sanctions against Russia. Trump appeared in the press conference to soften longstanding US opposition to increased Russian natural gas imports into Europe through the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and his administration has not used its existing authority to sanction the project. A bill introduced in the House would take away some of the president’s discretion, and impose sanctions automatically if Russia cuts gas supplies to Ukraine.
Congress can also ensure that the public learns the true extent of Russian election meddling by passing legislation to prevent the president from firing special counsel Robert Mueller.
Congress can also demand a full accounting of the president’s personal finances, including his tax returns. Innocent explanations for the president’s fawning behavior toward Putin are running short.
To accomplish any of those goals over the opposition of the president’s toadies on the far right, the members of Congress who’ve expressed dismay at his support for Putin and undermining of American alliances may need to resort to unusual — even unprecedented — measures.
For instance, senators could say they will not vote to confirm Trump’s nominees — including Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — until the administration releases the president’s tax returns, and until legislation protecting Mueller passes and becomes law. The thin margins in the Senate mean that just a handful of GOP senators have enormous leverage, should they choose to use it.
They could also take a still more radical step: Leave the Republican caucus, depriving Mitch McConnell of the ability to stop hearings or set votes. Nobody would expect senators like McCain or Murkowski to become Democrats, but simply by depriving the Republicans of a majority they could force action.
Actions like that are so far outside the norm, so extreme, that they should be reserved for matters of gravest importance. But if the president’s critics mean what they say, then that moment has arrived, and they can’t let Trump off the hook after his ridiculous claim Tuesday that he misspoke at the press conference. Susan Collins and her colleagues shouldn’t get away with misleading the public. At this juncture, they have the power to do much more than talk. They just need to find the courage to use it.