Congress

Key to Keeping Trump-Russia Inquiry Alive: 3 Republicans

To force Trump's hand on investigating Russia, all it takes is 3 of the 52 Senate Republicans to work with the 48 Democrats.

Will he stand up?

Photographer: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Calll via Getty Images

As I write, we don't really have any idea why Donald Trump decided to fire FBI Director James Comey, but there is widespread agreement that it's inappropriate for the president to have done so, even more inappropriate for him to have done so the way he did it, and considerable speculation that Trump means to have the investigation into the Russia scandal suppressed -- speculation egged on by the practically insane letter Trump released dismissing Comey, which directly referenced that investigation.

Regardless: If it was necessary before to have a special prosecutor named to look into the Trump-Russia scandal -- and it was -- it's absolutely imperative now, along with a (separate) Senate select committee.

Will it happen? That's up to the Republicans. 

Senate Republicans, at least at first. All it takes is 3 of the 52 Senate Republicans to work with the 48 Democrats. A Senate majority can bring the administration to a standstill. At the very least, 51 or more Senators could demand a special prosecutor, and refuse to confirm a new FBI director -- or any Department of Justice nominees, or even any executive branch nominees at all -- until Trump gives in. 

Will at least three Republicans do that? Would Republicans with at least some history of responsible actions join them, increasing the pressure on Trump? I'm talking about senators such as Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Johnny Isakson, Mike Lee, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, Rand Paul, Rob Portman, and Ben Sasse. Several of them called the president's action troubling or words to that effect on Monday night, but that's not enough. To be meaningful, it has to be backed up with action.

Are they willing?

Not, I suspect based on how they've acted so far, without receiving a fair amount of pressure themselves.

Here's the thing. Quite a few high profile Republicans took principled stands against Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, and many of them have continued to stand vigilant against Trump's threats to democratic norms. 

(Just to back up a bit: Investigating crimes and prosecuting crimes, including decisions on whether to prosecute, are the responsibility of the executive branch. Traditionally, decisions about both investigations and prosecutions are held at arm's length from the White House, even though the president is nominally the boss of the FBI and the Department of Justice. Richard Nixon appointed a Watergate special prosecutor, along with the staff to investigate, because the Senate demanded it as a condition for confirming Nixon's nominee for Attorney General in spring 1973. After that, Congress passed a law setting up a procedure for appointing independent counsels when scandals touched the presidency or the president's allies in the executive branch, but the law was allowed to lapse in 1999, leaving us today where things were back in 1973: The president must act for any special prosecutor to be named.)

What's needed now is several important steps further than that. Republicans who consider Trump's actions a threat to constitutional government need to do more than tweet about it. If they really mean what they say, they need to be willing to put serious pressure on Republican senators, especially those up for re-election in 2018, including Flake and Dean Heller. Patriotic Republicans need to be willing to threaten to go all the way -- that means supporting Democrats in those states -- unless those senators fight back against Trump. 

What can Democrats do? Other than what they've done so far, not much; they simply don't have the votes in the House or Senate to do anything, and Democrats are already (naturally) mobilizing against Trump and in preparation for the 2018 elections and will continue to do so with or without this added incentive. After all, for them, the policy choices of the Republican Congress and of the Trump Administration are sufficient reasons for outrage, regardless of whether or not Trump followed democratic norms. Of course, they should condemn lawless behavior by the White House, but they cannot prevent it without help. 1

As for Republicans? They've delayed action despite flagrant violations of democratic norms by this White House up to now. If they let Trump do this with no serious pushback, they're asking for even worse next time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Democrats should try to suppress wild-eyed conspiracy theories that are likely to run rampant among rank-and-file Democratic voters. They also should make sure they provide a positive incentive structure for any Republicans who will stand up to Trump, even if those Republicans continue to stick with their party on other policy questions. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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