The GOP Stands by as Trump Up-ends American Security
July 24, 2018
Evan Osnos / The New Yorker & Reader Supported News
Commentary: Fifty years ago, America was in agony. Its unity at home, and its standing abroad, were deteriorating. Today, the country again faces a profound political crisis, and the summer of 1968 is instructive. But this crisis differs in a fundamental way: fifty years ago, the President’s party had the will to respond. In the aftermath of Donald Trump's performance at the Helsinki summit, there has been outcry, but no real action, from the Republican establishment.
The GOP Stands by as Trump Upends American Security
Evan Osnos / The New Yorker & Reader Supported News
(July 22, 2018) -- Fifty years ago, America was in agony. Its unity at home, and its standing abroad, were deteriorating. Today, the country again faces a profound political crisis, and the summer of 1968 is instructive. One party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress, as was the case then, when Lyndon Johnson was President. But this crisis differs in a fundamental way: fifty years ago, the President’s party had the will to respond.
On April 4th, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot dead in Memphis, and riots erupted in a hundred cities. The next day, Johnson wrote to House Speaker John W. McCormack, a Massachusetts Democrat, imploring Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act, saying, “When the Nation so urgently needs the healing balm of unity, a brutal wound on our conscience forces upon us all this question: What more can I do to achieve brotherhood and equality among all Americans?” The act passed, over a Southern filibuster, on April 10th, the day after King’s funeral.
But Democrats did not shy from using their checks and balances against Johnson. The Tet Offensive, launched in January of that year, undermined the Administration’s claim that it was winning the war in Vietnam. Senator J. William Fulbright, of Arkansas, had previously concluded that escalation was folly, and had privately tried to change Johnson’s mind.
When that failed, he invoked the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to advise and consent, and, in 1966, convened a series of unprecedented public hearings on the handling of the war. By the following year, most Americans disapproved of it, and Senator Eugene McCarthy, of Minnesota, entered the race against a sitting President of his own party, arguing that duty called on him to challenge policies of “questionable legality and questionable constitutionality.”
This summer, President Donald Trump has upended the basis of American security—opening a trade war with China, chastising U.S. allies in Europe, and, at a press conference in Helsinki, following a two-hour private meeting with President Vladimir Putin, accepting his claim that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election.
The Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials had presented Trump with evidence that Putin himself had ordered cyberattacks in an attempt to affect the electoral outcome. Just days before the Helsinki meeting, Robert Mueller, the special counsel, indicted a dozen Russian intelligence officers on detailed charges of hacking Democratic e-mail accounts. In a separate case, prosecutors also accused a Russian woman in Washington, Mariia Butina, of advancing a plot to influence the National Rifle Association. (Her lawyer has denied the charges.) And still Trump praised the Russian leader.
The outcry, including from Republicans, was instant. Senator John McCain said, “No prior President has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.” McCain’s junior colleague from Arizona, Senator Jeff Flake, called Trump’s behavior “shameful.” For the rest of the week, the President’s allies tried to signal their independence.
Asked if Trump had been wise to meet one on one with Putin, Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, said, “I would have suggested a different way.” The Senate, in a rare act of unity, passed a nonbinding resolution against Putin’s request to interrogate American officials, a proposition that Trump had entertained but finally rejected.
More remarkable, though, was what didn’t happen. No one resigned from the Cabinet. No Republican senators took concrete steps to restrain or contain or censure the President.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University, noted that, fifty years ago, “you had elected officials, including the President, who were fundamentally committed to governance. They weren’t dismissive of the operation. They were cautious in how they did things because they understood the stakes of what elected officials do. None of that is true right now.”
The pattern is already visible for the historians of tomorrow. When Trump hailed neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” when he endorsed an accused child molester for the Senate, when he separated children from their parents at the Mexican border, the Republican Party, by and large, accepted it. And, when Coats said, of Russian cyberattacks, that “warning lights are blinking red again,” the Party did not pressure the President to mount a defense.
Meanwhile, Trump returned from Helsinki and resumed berating fellow-Americans, especially the press (“the real enemy of the people”). On Thursday, it was announced that he had invited Putin to visit Washington in the fall—an invitation that Coats learned of from an interviewer.
If Republicans decide to truly put country ahead of party, as the Democrats did in 1968, they have several options. They could halt the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee, until Trump strengthens safeguards against election hackers and embraces the investigation into Russian interference. (Bob Corker, of Tennessee, who is departing the Senate next year, called that idea a non-starter. “I like the Supreme Court nominee,” he told reporters. “So what the heck?”)
They could vote down nominees to lower courts, or threaten to switch parties. At a minimum, they could hold public hearings, like Fulbright’s, to examine Trump’s actions on trade, or NATO, or Russia. Most immediately, they could pass a law to prevent the President from firing Robert Mueller; in April, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance a bill with that intent, with four Republicans joining the Democratic members, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked it. The privilege of power carries the moral duty to use it.
In private, some Republican lawmakers offer a plainly expedient defense: they disdain the President, but, as long as he is popular with more than ninety per cent of the Party rank and file, confronting him would open the door to primary challenges from even more compliant successors. In truth, however, many Republicans are more comfortable with Trump than they care to admit.
Although they recoiled from images of children in cages at the border, the GOP leaders assented to Trump’s immigration crackdown, as they have to his tariffs and attacks on Canada, Mexico, and our European allies. Until that changes, this is the Republican Party of 2018.
In moments of American agony, we look for comfort in the legends of our resilience. In 1968, we found the will to govern, to unite, and to check a President who had lost his way. This is another moment for political courage. It lacks only someone to seize it.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, for noncommercial, educational purposes.