President Donald Trump is losing the Republican Congress.
The June 2016 meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, among others, underscores what was obvious to anyone paying close attention to the election before ballots were cast: Russia wanted Trump to win, and Trump wanted Moscow’s help.
Until that meeting was revealed, though, there was a little wiggle room for Trump’s reluctant defenders to dismiss evidence of collusion as circumstantial. Now, the furthest some are willing to go is to say that the president’s son hasn’t committed the most egregious offense against the nation.
“I’ve heard the word ‘treason,’” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told CNN on Friday. “This isn’t treason.”
What a standard!
From what reporters have unearthed — and from what Trump Jr. has acknowledged publicly — it’s reasonable to raise the question of whether there was an exchange on the table. Russia’s allies offered information and, according to Trump Jr.’s own account, wanted to talk about adoption — a topic inextricably tied to U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Step back: No one, regardless of political party, should be comfortable with the idea that a campaign would even entertain the idea of accepting help from a foreign adversary attempting to influence American policy.
That doesn’t mean Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or other Republican leaders will disavow the president or initiate impeachment proceedings anytime soon. But the benefit of the doubt — the willingness of serious GOP lawmakers to provide cover for the president amid the Russia story — is gone.
Like a 1960s movie
The question now is what the various players — the White House, Congress, special counsel Robert Mueller and American voters — ought to do about Trump’s ties to Russia. We are in the midst of a national crisis that puts Watergate in perspective as a botched break-in. Instead, it’s like we’re living through a mashup of Hollywood’s best (or worst) 1960s-era government-off-the-rails films: “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May” and “Dr. Strangelove,” to name a few. Let’s hope we don’t stumble into “Fail Safe,” in which American bombers are mistakenly dispatched to nuke Moscow.
At least back then, we knew that Russia was an enemy.
If Trump were acting rationally, he would have spent the last six months distancing himself from Russia rather than sucking up to President Vladimir Putin. He would understand that, given the collusion between his camp and a foreign power, he should do everything in his power to prove that he’s in neither the thrall nor the pocket of Moscow’s power elite.
He would promote harsher sanctions against Russia rather than blocking them. He would denounce Putin as a despot and a thug rather than praising him as a tough guy. Surely, his administration wouldn’t toy with the idea of creating a joint cybersecurity task force with a country that infiltrated American systems and used the information to try to throw a presidential election. And he certainly wouldn’t be praising his son for seeking ways to collaborate with an American adversary.
Instead, Trump is behaving as a man who believes he has more to lose by alienating Putin than by subordinating American interests to Russian interests. Is that because he simply admires Putin and Russia or because he is actually indebted to them? Does it matter? Unless Trump changes his behavior — and he’s shown zero indication so far that he will — Congress will have to intervene to stop him.
What Congress should do
Democrats in Congress would be wise to focus on their economic and social-policy platforms and let the media, federal investigators and the committees of jurisdiction dig into Trump’s Russia connections without the partisan flavor that has characterized so much of the discussion so far.
Republicans on the Hill would similarly do well to keep moving in the direction they seem to be headed: A serious probe of whether Trump or members of his inner circle committed any crimes, high crimes or misdemeanors, coupled with only the faintest of protestations against allegations that he acted improperly.
From a legal perspective, the key to all of this is Mueller’s investigation. On that matter, time is on Trump’s side. He would be wise to begin distancing himself from anyone who met with Russians on his behalf instead of heaping approval on them. At the appropriate time, he may decide to issue a binder full of pardons. Until then, it makes sense to keep those folks at a safer distance.
But on a political level, Trump’s fate rests with the voters. If they abandon him en masse, Republicans in Congress will move on him. If the vast majority of the GOP base sticks with him, their representatives in Congress will simply damn him and his team with faint praise — like “this isn’t treason” — for the next 16 months.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.