McCain Should Stand Up to Trump. Right Now.
Donald Trump is speaking with Vladimir Putin on Saturday amidst reports of an already-drafted plan to drop U.S. sanctions against Russia. It's no surprise that Trump has a pro-Kremlin tilt. But where are the Senate Republican Russia hawks? After all, it's clear that a majority of the Senate supports these sanctions, and probably even tougher ones.
The Senate, right now, has leverage. They have not yet confirmed secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson. Tillerson himself was suspected by Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio and others of being insufficiently hostile to Russia; presumably, their announced support means that he sufficiently assured them that his friendliness to Moscow while in the corporate world would not carry over to his actions in office. That's normally how the process works: Senators support executive branch nominees, allowing presidents to have the people they want, but use the process to influence the policies that executive branch departments and agencies will carry out.
If, however, Trump is moving ahead with easing sanctions anyway, then whatever assurances Tillerson supplied were either false, or, more likely, irrelevant: It's the White House, not State, making policy.
Fortunately for McCain and friends, Tillerson's confirmation vote was delayed and is now scheduled for Monday at 5 o'clock. McCain has plenty of time to lay down the law to the new president: No sanctions? No secretary of State.
McCain would still pledge to eventually vote for Tillerson, as he agreed to do earlier this week. He's correct to defer to the president over the choice of personnel. But there's no reason at all for McCain to defer on policy, and every reason in the world to grab on to any available means of engaging in a fight. Delaying a nomination over policy would be very comfortably within Senate norms.
(Technically, it would take unanimous consent at this point to push back the vote. If McCain produces enough votes to threaten to defeat the nomination on Monday, then Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republicans would have no choice but to delay the vote further).
The truth is Senate Republicans who support the international order currently under threat from Donald Trump have the ability to do something about it. They should.
And there's another benefit to McCain and Senate Republicans if they take strong action now. While Republicans don't want to cripple the new Republican presidency, it's also in their interest to give Trump a pointed reminder of how the constitutional system works, whether he likes it or not. There's nothing wrong with Trump taking executive actions during his first days in office; every president does that. And whether it's hypocritical or not, it's no surprise that Republicans in Congress won't criticize a new Republican in the Oval Office who does things they want. But Republican senators do have an interest in remaining relevant to policy formation, and this is a perfect opportunity to make it clear to Trump that he can't just govern by himself.
Or McCain, Graham, Rubio and the others can confine themselves to occasional tough tweets and snide comments to reporters. They're never going to get an easier chance to stand up for the policies they believe in. What are they waiting for?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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