Hours after Donald Trump sidled up to Vladimir Putin at their now-infamous press conference, Republican Sen. Bob Corker received a call from a prominent politician who pleaded with him to repudiate Trump — and to make it hurt this time.
The politician, who is weighing a run against the president, urged the Foreign Relations chairman to use his procedural leverage in the Senate to halt Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court as payback for Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russia’s election meddling. Nothing doing, the retiring senator responded.
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“Why would I cut off my nose to spite my face?” Corker recounted responding to the pol, whom he declined to name publicly. “I like the Supreme Court nominee. So what the heck?”
Corker is a standing member of a core group of Trump critics on Capitol Hill from his own party, who’ve knocked the president on everything from his warmth toward Russia to his refusal to condemn white nationalist groups to his tariffs against U.S. allies. But Democrats and some conservatives say the repeated chiding of Trump has had virtually no effect — the president routinely blows right past the criticism — and that it’s time for the wary Republican lawmakers to do something, not just say something.
Any one senator, if he or she was willing to buck Trump and party leadership, could grind the chamber to a halt, vote down nominees or even threaten to switch caucuses. With Republicans currently holding a 51-49 advantage, it would take just two like-minded GOP senators to put Democrats in the majority.
The lawmakers seen by Democrats as most likely to resort to more drastic measures are Corker, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Those critics are sometimes referred to as the “usual suspects” by their colleagues.
GOP senators “should use their leverage to stop the administration’s priorities” until the Senate passes a bill to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller and bolster election security, said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), adding that he’s “very angry” that Republicans won’t back up their criticism with action.
“For a United States senator to act powerless in a split Senate when the country is literally at stake, I’m aghast,” Schatz said. “In a 51-49 Senate, all we need is one person who wants to be on the right side of history.”
Yet the so-called “usual suspects” appear to have no appetite for the kind of ultra-principled stand Democrats pine for. Many Republicans like Trump’s domestic agenda, if not the way he talks about it, and still don’t believe direct confrontation with the president is the answer.
Flake vowed to hold up a host of judges in order to get a non-binding vote showing the Senate opposes Trump’s tariffs. But he said that was different than confronting Trump directly over Russia: Flake was trying to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to move on something specific.
“Some people think if you’re opposed to the president then you’re all of a sudden into Democratic philosophy. … I’m a conservative,” Flake said. “I wrote a book about it. And I understand the frustration people have.”
Steve Schmidt, a longtime adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), tweetedat Flake on Monday to cut a deal with Democrats to “relieve the complicit Mitch McConnell” of the majority leader job. Asked if he would ever switch caucuses, Flake laughed heartily: “I’m a conservative.”
Murkowski responded similarly and said she’s never even been seriously approached by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.): “That’s not even a discussion that I think is something to bring up or to entertain.”
Sasse spokesman James Wegmann called the idea of torpedoing Kavanaugh “idiotically stupid.”
Republicans seeking to rein in Trump have other less drastic options than outright defection from the GOP conference or opposing Kavanaugh.
Those who hold committee gavels could exert their power to conduct harsher oversight of the administration or issue subpoenas, which likely would require an alliance with Democrats. Any senator can follow Flake’s lead in holding up nominees in order to exact more firm concessions, as Colorado Republican Cory Gardner did this year in a bid to spare his state’s legal marijuana industry from punitive Trump administration measures.
And Corker argued that limiting Trump’s tariffs with legislation will keep Trump from “pushing away our allies, [which] strengthens Putin.”
Senate Democrats occasionally took steps to rein in former President Barack Obama’s agenda when they held the majority, such as then-Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) stiff-arm of Obama free trade deals in 2014.
But most Republicans argue that simply doing their job with a semblance of normalcy is the best response to whatever Trump happens to be up to on any given day.
“When the president says something that I disagree with, I will state my disagreement, sometimes very directly,” Murkowski said in an interview. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed — I’m not really a bomb thrower. I don’t really lay my body in front of the train … I’m trying to facilitate a level of governance that is constructive.”
Collins similarly brushed aside hopes that she would be willing to stage a protest on the Senate floor to get the president to change his approach to foreign policy. The Maine moderate explained that she and her GOP colleagues have been “some of the strongest” critics of Trump after his appearance with Putin.
“I’ve been very outspoken in my views when I disagree with the president, as I vehemently do in this case. And that that is far more effective, [along with] working for these legislative changes … than doing a splashy, meaningless gesture,” Collins said, citing her work on beefing up election security and investigating Russia.
Not so, say outraged Democrats as well as some Republicans. Trump’s behavior is so outlandish, they argue, that an evenhanded, everyday response from his party simply doesn’t cut it.
“If one of them votes against Kavanaugh, two or three of them, that would be seismic,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.
Schumer and some Senate Democrats have urged the GOP gadflies to take more moderate steps, such as pushing for the strongest possible sanctions against Russia. But some believe Flake and others should hit the panic button now.
GOP strategist Rick Wilson, one of a handful of outspoken “never Trump” critics in the party, urged the Senate Republicans willing to lob critical tweets at the president to think of their own places in the history books.
“In 100 years, it’s unlikely anyone will remember their names,” Wilson said in an interview. “They will be people who were in the Senate, passed a few bills, and left the Senate.”
“Or they could find themselves in a position where the threat of Trump … is so urgent, that they could stand up and do something that breaks or makes history.”