Will Republicans in Congress ever check Trump?

From the 2016 Republican primary fight to today, Republican leaders have avoided confronting a man whose view of government, character and temperament are decidedly not conservative. That man is Donald Trump.

While running for the nomination, Trump went after the GOP establishment, insulting in especially personal and nasty terms Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. When Trump was the nominee, some criticized him after the release of the Hollywood Access tape in which Trump was heard talking about how he went after married women and grabbed women’s private parts. Despite that and much more, nearly all Republican elected officials, with Sen. Susan Collins a prominent exception, supported Trump in 2016.

While some Republican office-holders have from time to time said they’re concerned or disappointed with President Trump’s actions, by and large they’ve remained firmly in the Trump tent, as Trump delivered on top priorities: nominating far-right judges approved by the Federalist Society; cutting taxes for high income people; and undermining labor and environmental laws. 

But now these Republicans face new tests from Trump’s chaotic foreign policy and have to decide how much they will use the powers they’ve let languish. 

President Donald Trump speaks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Saturday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Trump frequently proclaims he knows more than people with real experience and expertise on many matters, famously saying he knew “more about ISIS than the generals.” Made without the support of military, diplomatic and national security advisors, Trump’s recent decision allowing Turkey to invade Kurdish areas in northern Syria has been a disaster. 

America’s safety and reputation have been damaged. The Turkish invasion and attacks on the Kurds increased the risk of terrorism because they’ve enabled ISIS fighters to escape from imprisonment. Our greatest Middle Eastern ally Israel is concerned and its security has been undermined.

Having friends who are willing to put their bodies on the line in common efforts is not a weakness, but a strength. This is as true internationally as it is when a huge fire breaks out in a small town and other towns come to help. Our country’s leaders have long known this but Trump betrayed our Kurdish allies, delivering a stark message to the world that the United States is not to be trusted. 

What did the Kurds do? According to former American diplomat Peter W. Galbraith, “They are the ones who recovered the territory that ISIS had taken.’” As the New York Times reported, “Even after the Islamic State had lost most of its territory, the United States trained counterterrorism units to do tactical raids on ISIS hide-outs and provided them with intelligence needed to plan them.” Now ISIS has “a second lease on life.” As Turks are committing war crimes against Kurds, American Special Forces tell reporters they feel ashamed of this betrayal of the Kurds with whom they worked so closely. 

As for the Kurds, Trump’s abrupt change of policy has, in the words of a top Kurdish official, “obliged us to look for alternative options.” The result of Trump’s decision is an increase in the regional power of Russia and Iran. 

Trump’s precipitous acts will damage American interests for years to come and, indeed, there are bipartisan calls to impose sanctions on Turkey but this won’t turn back the clock or constrain Trump’s ability to take similarly dangerous steps in the future.

Republicans’ other big test involves how they handle the ever-emerging facts about how Trump used foreign policy to damage a top domestic political opponent, and Trump’s bizarre constitutional claims. Presidents can be impeached but not members of Congress but Trump called a potential impeachment of him “a coup” and suggested Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff be impeached. 

Nearly all Republican leaders have backed a president who avoided and denigrated institutional checks created by our founders. Collins hasn’t said if she’ll endorse him for 2020.

Recently Colin Powell diagnosed American foreign policy as “a shambles” and called on Republicans to “get a grip” and reassert themselves in Congress. Let’s see if they will. So far it looks unlikely.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.