Will Congress Hold Russia Accountable for the Behavior Trump Excuses?

With the president letting Putin off the hook for meddling in elections, it's up to the congressional GOP to defend the integrity of American democracy.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

From the start of the Trump-Russia story, there have been many secrets, but no mysteries.

Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump. Donald Trump publicly welcomed that help, and integrated the fruits of Russian intervention into his closing campaign argument. (“I love WikiLeaks!”) Since being elected, he has attempted to tilt American policy toward Russia, above all by his persistent and repeated attempts to lift the sanctions imposed by President Obama to punish Russia for its invasion of Crimea in 2014 and for its election-meddling in 2016.

Uncertainties remain: Did the Trump campaign actively coordinate its messaging with Russia? Were any U.S. laws violated along the way? What exactly are Trump’s motives? What are Russia’s? And Sunday’s latest revelations added one more: Was Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a shady Russian lawyer who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton in any way connected to the WikiLeaks drop a few days later?

But the basic story line is clear. It was clear in real time—and it’s clearer than ever after the Hamburg summit. Whatever exactly happened at the meeting between Trump and Putin, the president’s Sunday morning Twitter storm confirms: Trump has accepted Putin’s denials as the final word on the matter.

Why would Trump not accept it? He has insisted that the accounts of Russian interference in the US election are a “made-up story,” a hoax by sore-loser Democrats. Putin told Trump nothing that Trump did not already believe—or anyway, that Trump wanted everyone else to believe. If there was any question before Hamburg, that question was settled at Hamburg: There will be no consequences for Russia. They attacked American electoral processes and succeeded. The president Russia helped to install will not punish Russia for helping to install him.

The question now turns to the rest of the American political system. Senate Majority Leader McConnell warned Obama against taking action against Russia during the election. Whatever is said of Obama’s decisions, one of Obama’s motives for inaction was the knowledge that congressional Republicans would take Trump’s and Russia’s side if he tried to act. Congressional investigations into Russian meddling have been stalled (in the Senate) and outright sabotaged (in the House). Even as Trump in Hamburg absolved Putin of consequences for election interference, House Speaker Paul Ryan, at the behest of Trump, is stalling in the House the measures the Senate approved 97-2 to prevent Trump from lifting existing sanctions on Russia. It’s fine for Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio to tweet sarcastic comments about Trump’s plans for cyber cooperation with Russia. Congress can do more than tweet—if it chooses.

It’s no longer Donald Trump in the spotlight. It’s the Republican leaders in Congress. Whether or not Trump colluded with Russia, the challenge to them is: Will they make themselves complicit after the fact? Or will they at last do what the president will not: Defend American democracy and hold accountable those who have attacked it? Even to phrase the question is to confront the depressing answer. Congressional Republicans may not condone Trump’s misbehavior. But they are not willing to punish it—or to put at risk their enjoyment of its fruits.