It is August 2017, and you are a principled Republican member of Congress. You are appalled by the president’s character; disturbed by his erratic behavior in office; upset by his defenestration of democratic norms; and increasingly worried about the apparent abuses of power in his administration. While you have voted overwhelmingly to confirm his nominees and advance the conservative legislation he supports, you have also made a point of periodically voicing your concerns in media interviews and measured op-eds. You’ve expressed disapproval of the president’s Twitter feed, and parted with him on the issue of Russia sanctions.
Are you doing enough?
This is one of the most polarizing political questions of the moment. To Donald Trump’s opponents, the answer is laughably obvious: Of course congressional Republicans aren’t doing enough to hold the president accountable, they argue. Most GOP lawmakers are bending over backwards to excuse and ignore Trump’s bad behavior, while those few who do routinely speak out are still voting with him 93.5 percent of the time. They are all talk and no action: corrupt partisans posing as leaders.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, a popular genre of GOP apologia has emerged to contend that Republicans are being held to an unrealistic standard; that in fact they’ve already done plenty to stand up to Trump. Sure, they’ve voted for conservative bills, the reasoning goes—they are conservatives, after all! But that doesn’t mean their public criticism of a Republican president can be dismissed. As the conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru recently put it: “They’re falling pitifully short only if the baseline expectation is that they do whatever liberal journalists think it’s their duty to do.”
It’s an exhausting debate, and one that suffers greatly from a lack of specifics. For all the energy devoted to attacking and defending the integrity of GOP lawmakers, relatively little time has been spent delineating and debating the specific demands Trump’s critics have for Republicans on Capitol Hill. What does it actually mean to “stand up to Trump”? Aside from derailing their entire legislative agenda to punish the president—an unrealistic expectation for any party in power—what exactly do the critics want congressional Republicans to do to hold Trump accountable?
To answer this question, I surveyed a wide range of the president’s detractors—including partisan Democrats, liberal commentators, NeverTrump conservatives, and libertarians. What follows is not a comprehensive catalog of action items for the GOP (much less an endorsement of them). Their responses varied widely, and in some cases contradicted each other. But taken together, they offer to move the debate from the abstract to the concrete, pointing to a gap between what critics would actually like to see done, and what Congress is presently doing.
Protect the Mueller investigation at all costs
Virtually everyone I talked to agreed that the single most important thing congressional Republicans can do right now is to stop the president from shutting down Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Trump’s critics contend that any effort by the White House to meddle with the probe would represent a brazen affront to the rule of law.
The prospect of a “Saturday Night Massacre” redux isn’t far-fetched. In recent weeks, Trump has publicly weighed firing Mueller, and press reports have suggested the White House is looking for ways to attack and discredit him. Meanwhile, Trump has all but declared open war on his own attorney general—a bizarre and unprecedented spectacle that many fear portends a Justice Department shakeup aimed at shuttering the Mueller probe.
If Trump is indeed planning an assault on Mueller and his team, Capitol Hill Republicans are uniquely positioned to make the president back down. And yet, so far, the reaction from most GOP lawmakers has been somewhat muted and muffled.
“They should declare that firing the special counsel would cross a red line that would draw the full weight of Congress’s powers to check the executive,” said Austin Evers, executive director of legal watchdog group American Oversight.
What exactly could the “full weight of Congress” look like in this context?
Brian Fallon, a former Hillary Clinton spokesman and senior adviser at Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, suggested a few options for Republicans: Pledge to restore an independent counsel statute if Muller is fired; preemptively declare that removing Mueller would amount to obstruction of justice; and threaten to refuse to confirm a successor to Sessions if Trump fires him.
Senator Lindsey Graham—one of the most noisily Trump-averse Republicans in Congress—presented his colleagues with another option last week when he announced he was co-sponsoring a bill that would prevent Trump from firing Mueller without judicial review. Essentially, the legislation would bind the executive branch with one more layer of accountability. On Thursday, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis teamed up with Democratic Senator Chris Coons to introduce a similar bill, allowing Mueller to appeal a removal to a three-judge panel.
Support rigorous Congressional investigations
Washington Democrats have generally given passing grades to the Senate Intelligence Committee for its responsible, bipartisan approach to the ongoing Trump-Russia saga. But most of the other relevant congressional committees, they argue, are utterly failing in their duty to police the president—especially in the House of Representatives.
Last month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Republicans should demand that the Trump administration release “all documents, legal memoranda, and communications” pertaining to alleged abuses of power. Her office then provided a detailed breakdown of which issues the various GOP-chaired committees should be looking into. Pelosi would like to see the Ways and Means Committee working to obtain Trump’s tax returns. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee could be investigating possible conflicts of interest around the Trump Hotel’s government lease agreement. The Judiciary Committee could dig into Sessions’s failure to disclose foreign contacts, and whether he’s violated his recusal from the Russia investigation.
To drive home their point, House Democrats recently used an obscure parliamentary procedure to force votes on investigating a number of these issues. Republicans dismissed the gambit (not entirely without reason) as a stunt meant only to generate fodder for attack ads.
But it isn’t just elected partisans calling on Republican committee chairs to take their oversight responsibilities more seriously. Evers told me that Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should expand the budgets for the Intelligence, Judiciary, and Oversight committees so that they can staff up and get to work. And a number of commentators have argued that Representative Devin Nunes—“an embarrassing suck-up to the president,” the columnist Josh Barro has charged—should be removed from his perch on the Intelligence Committee, and replaced with a more serious and less compromised chairman.
Given the committees’ spotty investigative track record so far this year, some are advocating for the formation of a bipartisan independent commission—akin to the 9/11 Commission—to investigate Russia’s interference with the election. Others, meanwhile, believe the Russia probe should be tasked to a “Select Committee” made up of lawmakers hand-picked by congressional leadership. Those two plans aren’t mutually exclusive—but for either to become a reality, it would require substantial Republican support.
Evan McMullin, a prominent NeverTrump conservative, told me Republicans on Capitol Hill still need to grapple with the magnitude of the Russia threat as they consider how to proceed. “This is serious enough and complicated enough that there should be a special select committee … and it should be properly resourced,” he said. “It should have its own staff, it should have its own funding. The Benghazi committee had a staff of 40 people and a budget of millions of dollars. This is at least as important as that.”
Publicly draw a line in the sand
In a column earlier this week, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf suggested that all of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s sharp criticism of Trump has left an important question unanswered:
Trump is a legitimate president, despite garnering so many fewer votes than his opponent, because the Electoral College is a legitimate part of the American constitutional system. So is impeachment. In what circumstances would Flake vote to convict?
Most of the Washington Democrats I’ve talked to were skittish about using the “I” word at this stage. While they leave open the possibility of impeachment hearings at some point in the future, they generally want to see what comes of the Mueller investigation before they start in with the talk about high crimes and misdemeanors.
But some of Trump’s detractors have argued for a strategic use of impeachment threats. Congressional Republicans should draw a line in the sand, they argue, and make clear that if Trump crosses it, his presidency could be in peril. “If you try to shut down the special counsel, we can’t rule out impeachment...”; “If you start issuing pardons to yourself and your family members, we may have no choice...” The best-case scenario envisioned by such critics, as Jamelle Bouie notes, is that the Republicans’ threats will cause the president to back down:
Donald Trump often floats ideas before takes action, testing boundaries before he crosses lines. We don’t know if his recent statements and inquiries about the Russian investigation are part of that pattern, but we also know he may back off if shown the backlash he would face. If Republicans want to preclude a major showdown with the president, they can reaffirm those boundaries as they exist … Already, Republican lawmakers have worked with Democrats to put Russian sanctions into law, a directly oppositional move toward Trump. They can also make selective threats about impeachment to make clear there is behavior they will not tolerate.
But impeachment threats wouldn’t necessarily just be about getting tough on Trump—they could also be a way for congressional Republicans to hold themselves accountable. After all, it’s easy to rationalize keeping your head down and staying quiet while a scandal engulfs the White House. It becomes harder to let yourself off the hook if you’re publicly on the record saying that this particular scandal would be an impeachable offense—and legislators can justify tough votes to angry constituents by saying that they’re bound by their public commitments.
For conflict-averse politicians, that might sound like an argument against the line-in-the-sand approach. But for Republicans looking to set limits on this president, it may possess a certain appeal.