When President-elect Donald Trump ascends to the Oval Office on Inauguration Day, one of the institutions that can serve as a check on his executive power will be the United States Congress. And although Senate Democrats will likely have some leverage in the form of the filibuster, that Congress will, for the near future, be controlled by the GOP. So a good question to ask right now is, “Will Congressional Republicans provide that vital check on potential misrule?”
To save everyone some time, I’ll spoil the ending: no. I mean, possibly yes, but probably no.
During the primary season, prominent Republicans managed to talk a good game against Trump, in many instances correctly describing him as a liar and a scam artist. And prominent members of the conservative thought-leader set contributed to the cause, identifying Trump ― again, accurately ― as a corrupt, kleptocratic strongman in the making, someone who threatened to degrade important institutions within our democracy.
But you probably noticed that for the most part, Congressional Republicans didn’t really join in the anti-Trump crusade. Condemnations were occasionally offered and then walked back ― most notably after the famous “grab her by the pussy” revelation, when several GOP legislators professed concern over what Trump represented to their mothers and daughters, and then suddenly remembered that actually, they would like to be re-elected, please.
Republican legislators no doubt heard an earful from the conservative intelligentsia about Trump’s threat to sacred institutions. They also probably heard concerns from their ideological comrades in the commentariat, voicing skepticism as to whether Trump was actually, deep down, a true conservative ― since Trump does, after all, have a history of supporting various liberal causes and Democratic politicians. But even if they have heard these concerns, they’ve kept their mouths shut.
In this regard, I would guess, Republican legislators ended up reading Trump correctly. His past actions, after all, were not evidence of a secret liberal heart. They were merely the actions of a man who’d always followed the path of least resistance, who appeared to favor liberal ideology when his highest priorities were 1) making it in the entertainment industry and 2) remaining a member of the Manhattan elite. Republican legislators (I’m thinking) correctly reckoned that Trump is, in fact, an empty ideological vessel ― one who needs all the help he can get to do a job he’s clearly not suited to perform.
For GOP lawmakers, then, Trump might represent a danger to some important democratic institutions, but not to conservative governance itself. He is, in other words, the type of president whom Grover Norquist famously described as the platonic ideal for a GOP-run Congress.
“We just need a president to sign this stuff,” Norquist said of Mitt Romney back in 2012. “We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. The requirement for president? Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”
There’s really no indication that Trump won’t be exactly that. Trump’s digits may be short, but he has a sufficient number for pen-operating. And while his policy positions have been presented in a typically id-slathered way, many of them are, at base, bog-standard Republican dogma. Conservatives in the House and Senate may have concerns about Trump’s overall effect on the republic, but as The New Republic’s Brian Beutler points out, they’ve got their eyes on a bigger payout:
There are multiple incentives inhibiting Republicans from acting to contain Trump right now. Trump is more popular among GOP voters than many elected Republicans are within their own states and districts. Those who might otherwise be inclined to rein Trump in might also be disinclined to sow division within the party before they’ve even claimed their new majority.
But the zen mantra on Capitol Hill isn’t about Trump or party unity per se, but the regressive tax cuts and restored Supreme Court dominance his victory portends. Republicans have led the country into a terrifying funhouse, but are taking solace in the faith that everyone will emerge from it unscathed after they’ve secured their election spoils.
As the cavalcade of disgraces accelerates, this bet looks more and more reckless. Republicans may never find it within themselves to treat Trump’s embarrassments and corruption with the alarm they deserve, but they are almost certainly not going to rein him in before he sends them an acceptably Scalia-like Supreme Court nominee and signs their tax cuts.
Beutler presents all of this as a sort of gamble: Can GOP legislators get everything they want out of Trump before they have to start worrying about the cracks forming in the foundation of civil society? But even this notion ― that the GOP will rein in Trump’s self-dealing and autocratic tendencies once they’ve secured their boodle ― is a bit optimistic.
Consider, for example, these three demonstrated realities that offer clues as to how Trump might be likely to try and debase America’s institutions. There’s his antipathy for the free press. There are his constant efforts to undermine the integrity of elections. And there’s the plethora of options currently available for him to use the office of the presidency for naked self-enrichment.
Does that sound like anything that GOP legislators might mount the barricades over? With the exception of Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), probably not. The gradual degradation of the press has been a conservative project since the mid-1990s, as has the effort to deny voters an easy path to enfranchisement ― just ask anyone who supported the “Motor-Voter bills” from the same era, or who has fought the good fight for voter rights ever since. Trump has brought his own brand of rhetoric ― and his own brand of threats ― to these fights. But he’s joining frays that were already in progress.
What’s been lately cited as the most unique way that Trump poses a threat to established democratic norms is his vast portfolio of personal financial entanglements and conflicts of interest, which span the globe in a dizzying array of opportunities for graft and corruption. In this case, it falls to someone willing to force him to put his assets into a proper blind trust, so that he’s well clear of any possible self-dealing.
This week, Trump made a vague announcement about “leaving” his business, but it’s not clear how his merely “leaving” will eliminate these conflicts of interest. He continues to dodge on the matter of establishing a true blind trust. More generally, Trump has taken the Nixon line on this controversy ― that what the president does cannot be illegal. As far as federal conflict-of-interest laws go, Trump is correct. But the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause says otherwise, in no uncertain terms.
Trouble is, you’ve got to actually step up and enforce that sucker, and I don’t see GOP legislators scrambling to do so. As The Huffington Post’s Michael McAuliff reported, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has taken a robust “nothing to see here, folks” stance on the matter. And Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who formerly seemed pretty keen to hold Trump accountable (he once demanded that Trump release his tax returns, which is adorable), has lately been doing his best impression of an invertebrate as well.
Perhaps congressional Republicans will try to hold Trump accountable once he’s signed off on their legislative agenda. But I kind of doubt it. And I’m not sure Democrats will be able to sell the notion that Trump’s self-enrichment harms taxpayer interests.
In many ways, these circumstances aren’t even unique to Trump. Corruption has been a way of life in Washington for a long while now. The revolving door spins, the money flows in and out and everyone gets a piece. From a legal standpoint, centuries of case law that once held that even the appearance of impropriety was harmful to democracy have eroded nearly completely. The Supreme Court only months ago overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, accepting the argument that even pay-to-play bribery and favor-trading were essential to governance.
So the notion that a lot of Congresscritters are going to suddenly develop a passion for the Emoluments Clause seems fanciful. It’s far more likely that any such legislator would be either treated as a generic partisan foe or ridiculed by the media for doing something quixotic, as is often the case with legislators who oppose dumb wars or mention how it might be nice to give money to poor people. The test case, for the moment, is with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who, as Politico reports, is fighting a lonely fight to make sure Trump takes “the necessary financial steps to ensure that he is not violating any constitutional limits on a president’s conflicts of interest.”
Besides, Trump’s nervous new allies might see Trump’s ability to enrich himself as a vital safeguard against catastrophic error. If Trump’s at his most unstable and impulsive when he’s angry, allowing him to pad out his bank account might come to be viewed as the cost of keeping him happy.
Maybe Beutler’s right and Republican legislators will discover an appetite for institution-preserving once their ambitions have been realized at the business end of Trump’s autopen. But it’s not clear what would drive them to suddenly see the press, the vote, or good and honest government as vital things worth defending, after decades of not doing that.
So if those things aren’t potential breaking points between the Trump White House and the GOP-led Congress... well, do any exist? Really, the only possibility I can see for tension arising is if Trump’s voters try to hold him accountable for all those elaborate promises he made to restore the wealth of working-class Americans ― a group the GOP has always courted without doing much to actually help. Now, everyone in the Republican Party is on the hook.
Of course, it’s possible that at some point, a few million working-class Americans will be deprived of secure access to affordable health care. It’s also possible that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has done great work defending the financial interests of ordinary Americans, will be badly defanged. And the way financial sector regulation is shaping up, we could soon be returning to the pre-crash status quo, in which deregulated and overleveraged banks ride insecure bubbles with their nethers dangling naked in the wind ― a great recipe for a sequel to the 2008 financial crisis.
So that’s your breaking point: broken promises and broken people. Short of that, and barring some frankly astonishing rediscovery of principles and public-mindedness in a party that appears to have lost all interest in the business of governing, don’t expect GOP legislators to pull any muscles protecting the institutions that Trump threatens. I would love to be proven wrong here, but it seems that in the minds of congressional Republicans, the only institution in town worth preserving is... congressional Republicans.
There’s going to be a fun irony to that. Sadly, you can’t pay your medical bills with fun irony.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.
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