“While we’re watching (Trump), we need to watch our Congress.
“I watched the senators heading into the chamber the other day after all this broke, with the reporters saying, what do you have to say, what do you to say?
“They had nothing to say. They would not react.
“And so we’re not a country of just the president. We have a Congress. We have a Supreme Court. But, most of all, we have the people of the United States, the ones who vote, the ones who vote him in and the ones who vote him out.”
Make no mistake what Powell is doing here: He is calling on — and out — Republican lawmakers for their utter capitulation to Trump’s every whim. He is trying to remind them that the founders of the country envisioned three co-equal parts of the government — not a legislative branch that lived in fear of the executive and did whatever he said.
Which is what the Republican Party in Washington has done over the past three years. While Trump was the pick of almost none of the major Republican leaders in Washington during the 2016 campaign, it became clear in the wake of his march to the GOP nomination and stunning victory over Hillary Clinton that he would force them into a very clear choice: Are you with me or against me?
Trump’s political worldview didn’t allow for any nuance or differentiation. Either you agreed with him — publicly, at least — 100% of the time or you were his enemy — and, therefore, someone he would try to destroy. (And yes, this is an incredibly simplistic way to view politics and the world.)
So, very early on in Trump’s presidency, Republican leaders had to make a choice: Do you align totally with Trump (and get some of your main priorities like more conservative judges, a tax cut, etc.) or do you assert your independence as a legislative body and risk a tension-filled relationship with the chief executive that could jeopardize those priorities?
Even amid those worrying signs, however, very few Republicans are likely to respond to Powell’s call to stand up for themselves — and against the President.
In the wake of former Defense Secretary James Mattis’ critique of the President late last week, mum was the word among congressional Republicans, with a few notable exceptions, like Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
“It’s just politically fashionable to blame Trump for everything — and I’m not buying it,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“I didn’t follow, I’m sorry,” said Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy.
That silence (or sticking of head into sand) is what Trump has bought with the policy proposals he pushed. The unspoken deal made by congressional Republicans was that they would use Trump to get long-desired conservative priorities in exchange for unstinting political loyalty to a man who, up until a few years before he decided to run for president in 2016, wasn’t even a Republican and who, on a variety of issues from trade to deficits, holds views directly opposed to those espoused by the GOP establishment just a few years ago.
No one knew what the price of that silent loyalty would be back in early 2017. As of today, it could well lead to a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Congress come January 2021. And even beyond that, the full embrace of Trump and the unwillingness to offer any real critique of policies and statements that are well beyond any traditional definition of “conservative” could well set back the GOP brand for far longer than a single election.
The question every Republican will have to ask themselves, maybe sooner than later, is this: Was it worth it?