Why Trump Can Do Whatever He Wants; or A Heuristic for Understanding Congressional Republicans’ Behavior

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This is what it’s all about. By Thomas L. Hungerford, U.S. Congressional Research Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As the country freaks out over the consequences of its monumentally stupid decision to elect Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States because of EMAILS, it is useful to take a step back and try to understand who actually has the power to do anything about the different disasters unfolding. There’s the judicial branch, which has the final say about the legality and constitutionality of laws or executive orders. Some members of the judiciary have already tried to deal with President Trump’s embarrassingly incompetent executive order (EO) on immigration.

The judiciary can be a check if the Trump administration deigns to follow its orders. Unfortunately, it’s already been reported that some Customs and Border Protection agents may be defying court orders to halt Trump’s EO to deport people with valid visas. We don’t know yet if this is at Trump’s behest or not, but I fear either way it’s a harbinger of rule of law crises to come.

More useful and on more secure footing would be Congress exerting its power to rein in the executive branch. Congress, both the House and the Senate, is controlled by Republicans. Democrats are sidelined until at least 2018, which is when the public will have its first opportunity to mitigate the ramifications of having lost its collective mind in the voting booth last year. Until Democrats take control of at least one chamber, President Trump runs the executive branch at the pleasure of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and their Republican majorities in the Senate and House. At any time, both chambers of Congress have vast constitutionally appointed powers to direct the activities of the executive branch or otherwise hold it accountable.

Let’s be clear about this. Everything that happens from now on, for better or worse, will be the result of deliberate actions or inactions taken by Republicans and their Congressional leaders. Indeed, the last option in the face of an incompetent or dangerous president – impeachment – is fundamentally a political process that goes first through the House and then through the Senate.

So why aren’t McConnell or Ryan doing anything about Trump so far? One could argue that it is early still and they do not want to handicap the new president and de facto leader of the Republican Party. It’s the “give him a chance” approach we hear from the type of Trump voter/enabler who knows he or she is running out of legitimate defenses of his behavior.

That hypothesis won’t be relevant once the initial honeymoon phase is over. What then? We need to look at what I believe is the single most significant driver of elected Republican official behavior: taxes. The issue of taxes is the institutional Republican Party’s one truly sacred cow. Understanding that the Republican Party exists mainly to shield the wealthy from tax increases – and preferably, cut their taxes – is the key that explains most elected Republican officials’ behavior. If you try to understand elected Republican official behavior without considering taxes, even when taxes seem entirely irrelevant to a given policy debate, you will be lost.

Armed with the knowledge that it’s all about taxes, you can begin to understand why Congressional Republicans have so far refused to curtail Trump’s behavior, even when it conflicts with values a given Republican congressperson or senator claims to hold. Take the EO on immigration, for example. Some Republicans have criticized Trump over this. At any moment it would take only three Republican senators (joining with the 48 senators in the Democratic caucus for a 51-vote majority) to force the Trump administration to enter negotiations over a given Cabinet appointment. If McConnell or Senator John McCain or whoever actually cared about the EO on immigration, they could bring together two or more Republican senators and hold up Rex Tillerson’s nomination for secretary of state to get concessions out of Trump – say, a rescindment of the EO. No such concrete actions have been forthcoming.

Some elected Republicans may criticize Trump over this issue or that one, but notice that they don’t do anything meaningful to try to get Trump to change course. That’s because they are playing the long game on taxes; any real rift with Trump threatens the implicit deal Republicans have made with the president. That deal, from Trump’s perspective, looks like this: don’t impeach me, and I’ll sign whatever you send me. From congressional Republicans’ perspective: sign our tax cuts for the wealthy, and we won’t impeach you. Everything else, and I mean everything else, can be ignored, rationalized, or negotiated.

The question is whether or not there’s a line Trump can cross that scrambles this model. I don’t think there is. We’ll lurch from crisis to crisis as long as Trump is willing to play ball on cutting taxes for the wealthy. After all, cutting taxes on the wealthy is a major part of Trump’s own agenda anyway. It’s not like he and Republicans in Congress disagree on the issue.

This is both the promise of Trump and the nightmare of Trump for Republican officials. They are all on the same page when it comes to cutting taxes for the wealthy, partially paying for it by destroying Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, and/or Social Security, and charging the rest to the national credit card. Even better, they are all on the same page when it comes to disempowering women and minorities, eliminating same-sex marriage, restricting access to birth control, and restricting access to the ballot. Trump and congressional Republicans can have a long and happy relationship on all of these issues.

Where Trump doesn’t behave like a traditional Republican – when Trump threatens the rule of law at home, or he threatens free trade and international institutions, or he doesn’t want to maintain U.S. dominance of global affairs, or he may or may not be Russia’s stooge, or he demonstrates no understanding of nuclear war, or he may or may not be sane – these are areas where Republicans are playing with fire. Since they’ve been playing with it for some time already, I really don’t think they’re going to know when to stop.

Some will say it can’t be this simple and shortsighted. It is. Majorities in both chambers of Congress and a president who will sign anything is a rare opportunity and one McConnell and especially Ryan have been waiting for their entire political careers. They are not about to let constitutional crises or basic human decency get in the way of tax cuts. (They also want massive deregulation, but tax cuts are the alpha and the omega.) This is their long game; everything else is just noise.

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