Don’t take things too far with John Wayne, or later, Clint Eastwood. They know the rules, and they play by the rules, but offend them, deeply, and they’ll say those words “Now it’s personal” – and all bets are off. You’re gonna die. They’ll track you down, to the ends of the earth if necessary, no matter how long it takes. Now they’ll ignore the rules, and you won’t like that very much. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s over, at least in the movies. Never get on the wrong side of righteous man.
But things may be changing:
The Senate passed a resolution Thursday to overturn President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, with 12 Republicans joining all the Democrats to deliver a rare bipartisan rebuke of the president.
The disapproval resolution passed the House last month, so the 59-to-41 Senate vote will send the measure to the president’s desk. Trump intends to use the first veto of his presidency to strike it down, and Congress does not have the votes to override the veto.
He wins. He sees any opposition as pointless:
“VETO!” Trump tweeted moments after the vote. A short while later he added, “I look forward to VETOING the just passed Democrat inspired Resolution which would OPEN BORDERS while increasing Crime, Drugs, and Trafficking in our Country. I thank all of the Strong Republicans who voted to support Border Security and our desperately needed WALL!”
And now this was personal, so he was going after his traitors:
For weeks, Trump had sought to frame the debate in terms of immigration, arguing that Republican senators who supported border security should back him on the emergency declaration, which would allow him to redirect military construction funds to the wall in the absence of an appropriation from Congress.
But for many GOP lawmakers, it was about what they saw as a bigger issue: the Constitution itself, which grants Congress – not the president – control over government spending. By declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress, Trump was violating the separation of powers and setting a dangerous precedent, these senators argued.
And some of these senators tried to do something else about all this:
Thursday’s vote followed numerous failed efforts at compromise by vacillating GOP senators, including one Wednesday evening in which a trio of Republican senators – Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, Ted Cruz of Texas and Ben Sasse of Nebraska – showed up nearly unannounced at the White House, interrupting Trump at dinner in a last-ditch effort to craft a compromise.
Their efforts failed, and Graham, Cruz and Sasse all ended up voting against the disapproval resolution.
“I said, ‘Thank you for meeting with us. Sorry we ruined your dinner.’ And again, if it’d been me, I would have kicked us out after about five minutes,” Graham said later.
That was odd, and didn’t matter:
Ahead of the vote, Trump took to Twitter to goad his critics and insist that defectors would be siding with Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“A vote for today’s resolution by Republican Senators is a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Crime, and the Open Border Democrats!” Trump wrote.
No one would change HIS mind. He and his base were right. Everyone else is wrong, and this was personal now, as the Washington Post reports here:
President Trump tried to marshal his most potent weapon – himself – to stave off what eventually became an embarrassing rejection from his own party over his declared national emergency on the border.
This was, then, all about him:
In numerous calls with Republican senators in recent days, the president spoke of the battle almost exclusively in personal terms – telling them they would be voting against him while brushing aside constitutional concerns over his attempt to reroute billions of federal dollars for a border wall. He argued that a vote against the emergency would be seen by GOP supporters as being against border security and the wall and would hurt their own political fortunes, according to a person with direct knowledge of some of the calls.
The president, along with his aides, continued to hammer that message leading up to Thursday’s Senate vote on the issue. Trump tweeted the day before that Republican senators were “overthinking” it, stressing that it was only about supporting border security. And White House aides made it clear to undecided Republicans that Trump was noticing those who chose to oppose him – particularly if they were up for reelection in 2020.
In short, make him look good or face the consequences.
That may have been the wrong approach:
Trump’s personal pleas and pressure were among a number of missed opportunities and missteps by the White House that contributed to a defeat notably worse than the administration had hoped for in trying to limit defections, according to officials and lawmakers familiar with the efforts, many of whom requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The administration, for example, failed to give opposing GOP senators legal opinions, project details and other information that they had requested about the national emergency, according to lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides. Vice President Pence was also unable or unwilling to make commitments on behalf of the president even while serving as Trump’s main emissary to negotiate with Republicans, people familiar with the debate said.
Trump made a mistake. This wasn’t all about him, and staffers were exasperated:
The deep concerns some GOP senators held about potential abuse of the separation of powers have been clear to the White House for weeks. In fact, some White House and congressional aides questioned whether the effort to sway them was even worth it.
“This was the inevitable outcome, and it’s unclear why any effort or political capital was spent trying to avoid it,” said Brendan Buck, a former top aide to former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “There aren’t the votes to override, so why bother negotiating?”
That’s a good question, but there was little negotiating:
During a private GOP lunch in late February that Pence attended, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) asked to see any memorandum produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that would lay out the administration’s rationale for why the emergency declaration was lawful, according to an official with knowledge of the closed-door discussion.
Cruz had raised a hypothetical question involving a Democratic senator from Massachusetts that struck at the heart of some of their concerns: What if a President Elizabeth Warren declared a national emergency to seize oil wells in Texas?
A Justice Department official in attendance said the White House had drafted a legal memo the Office of Legal Council had approved. When Cruz asked to see that document, Pence said he would relay the request to Trump.
The White House never provided that memo, according to an official familiar with the discussions.
Oops. But wait, there’s more:
A similar scenario unfolded a week later, when Republican senators pressed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for a list of military construction projects that could lose funding this year as a result of Trump’s emergency declaration. Nielsen told them the issue was largely the purview of the Pentagon – while Defense Department officials at the same time were deferring to Nielsen’s agency for information they needed to make a list of targeted projects.
Senators never got that list of projects either and some Republicans doubted whether one exists.
Nonetheless, Trump called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) almost daily to press him on who was opposing his declaration – all while White House officials worked to keep the number of Republican defectors in the single digits, according to two administration officials.
McConnell hung back, declining to pressure senators and instead focusing on getting as much information to Republicans as possible.
Trump may be losing the Republicans, or throwing them away, and Michael Gerson finds that odd:
There is no measurable sense in which Trump has grown into the office he holds. He remains defiantly nativist, instinctually divisive, habitually offensive. A significant portion of the voting public has gone from ambivalence about Trump to alarm, hostility and disdain.
So, in the 2018 midterm elections, Trump tried to nationalize the election on issues that motivate his party – appealing to those voters who are excited by exclusion.
That didn’t work. That will never work:
The politics of partisan mobilization works only if you don’t scare the rest of America to death. Republicans have come to the defense of a man who is incapable of widening his appeal. And this has opened up a reality gap between the GOP and the rest of our political culture. The rift between Republican perceptions of the president and the view of the broader public has grown into a chasm. This is now the main political context of the 2020 campaign.
Trump will say this is all about him and him alone, and that’s the problem, because he’s right, and trouble has to follow:
Why have Republicans fallen in line with a politician who has sometimes targeted their own party and leaders for populist disdain? Why have conservatives come to the defense of a leader with decidedly un-conservative views on trade and foreign policy? Why have religious conservatives embraced the living, breathing embodiment of defining deviancy down?
Those who violate their own beliefs for political gain – elevating the ends of politics over the means of character – become mentally invested in their choice. Admitting that Trump is a chaotic and destructive force in U.S. politics would require self-judgment. There is a reason that enablers enable – because a more objective self-assessment would bring guilt and pain.
So it was time to make a sad but sort of reasonable deal:
A president who panders to the religious right may end up being more reliable than a leader who is actually a religious conservative and thinks for himself or herself. Pandering is utterly predictable. Conscience makes distinctions.
But there is a downside to the deal. This particular demagogue requires not just consent but approval. And not just approval but obeisance. So religious conservatives end up blessing what Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful and the mayor of South Bend, Ind., memorably called “the porn-star presidency.” Deficit hawks vote for massive increases in debt. Economic conservatives accommodate the instincts of an economically illiterate leader. Military hawks endorse a foreign policy that resembles President Barack Obama’s, except with more praise of dictators and less backbone.
To ensure the political triumph of their views, these partisans must publicly dilute and discredit those views. Trump offers true believers an uncomfortable arrangement: What you would save you must first defile.
All of this is, then, unsupportable:
Making the case for Trump requires his advocates to consistently minimize his vices. Rather than conceding Trump’s demolition of public standards of honesty and decency, his supporters pronounce him a little rough around the edges. His racial bias is dismissed as straight talk or rhetorical excess. His testing of constitutional boundaries is an excess of zeal. His cruelty and crudity are, when you get used to them, just part of the show.
But if, as I suspect, Trump’s deception, indecency, racism, viciousness and lawlessness are uniquely dangerous to our democracy, his enablers will find their deal more difficult to explain.
Michael Gerson may be onto something there. Some things will be difficult to explain. Jonathan Chait suggests that this may be one of them:
One of Donald Trump’s favorite riffs is a wish, cast as a warning, that his supporters inside and outside the state security services will unleash violence on his political opponents if they continue to oppose the administration. The specifics of the riff don’t vary much. Trump laments that his opponents are treating him unfairly, praises the toughness and strength of his supporters – a category that combines the police, military, and Bikers for Trump, which he apparently views as a Brownshirt-like militia – and a prediction that his supporters will at some point end their restraint.
Trump did say this:
I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.
Chait says that it could be this bad:
Early warnings that Trump could undermine the Constitution have not been borne out, which has produced a certain complacency about the issue. It is true that Trump is only an aspirational authoritarian, and to date has failed to bring his most illiberal dreams to life. He has used the government to punish independent media, prevailing upon the Post Office to raise rates on Amazon in retaliation for Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post, and repeatedly told his staff to order the Justice Department to block a merger in order to punish CNN. So far, this has had little effect.
On the other hand, if Trump wins a second term – a prospect that, under current economic conditions, is close to a toss-up – his presidency will only be a quarter of the way through. Already his authoritarian rhetoric is so thoroughly normalized that it hardly even registers as news any more. Anyone whose political efforts involve helping Trump gain more power, rather than opposing that project, is playing Russian roulette with the Constitution.
Republicans have had some success in restraining Trump’s abuses – in large part by slow-walking his most blatantly illegal or authoritarian orders. But the GOP’s willingness to defy Trump has also eroded steadily over his presidency. Congress’s failure to block Trump’s use of emergency powers to build the border wall that Congress has declined to fund is an important marker in that deterioration.
That is deterioration:
Republicans used to define more modest exertions of executive power by President Obama as dangerous Caesarism. Republicans turned Obama’s rather casual vow to use his “pen and phone” to carry out executive authority into a Hitleresque claim of total power. Accordingly, when Trump claimed executive power to fund a project Congress refused to fund, at least some conservatives denounced his plans. North Carolina senator Thom Tillis wrote an op-ed calling for Congress to deny Trump’s authority.
“Conservatives rightfully cried foul when President Barack Obama used executive action to completely bypass Congress and unilaterally provide deferred action to undocumented adults who had knowingly violated the nation’s immigration laws. Some prominent Republicans went so far as to proclaim that Obama was acting more like an “emperor” or “king” than a president,” he wrote, “There is no intellectual honesty in now turning around and arguing that there’s an imaginary asterisk attached to executive overreach – that it’s acceptable for my party but not thy party.”
But then Trump started looking into supporting a primary challenger against Tillis. And lo and behold, Tillis abandoned the sacred principle. Republicans could have mustered a veto-proof majority to join with Democrats and block Trump, but failed. If Republicans are too frightened to defend what they themselves regard as a vital principle of the Constitution, what confidence should we have that they’ll stand in the way of Trump’s continued assaults on the Republic?
Greg Sargent is worried about that:
“It would be very bad, very bad.”
First, take Trump’s declaration that he has the support of the police and the military. Read in the most charitable way, Trump could merely mean that people in those groups tend to support him as individuals, not that he wants them to think of themselves as belonging to institutions that support him.
There’s no particular reason to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this. But even if he did intend it in this somewhat less disgusting way, he’s still saying that the ranks of his armed supporters could at some point feel provoked to violence. He doesn’t say they should feel provoked, but merely that they might feel provoked under certain conditions.
This allows Trump to plausibly claim that he isn’t endorsing that outcome or openly inciting it; why, he’s merely observing what’s possible. And it would be very bad, very bad if that did happen, let me tell you, so you’d better hope it doesn’t!
Also note that Trump isn’t saying one way or the other whether violence would be justified – which means he’s dangling it out there that it might be. He certainly isn’t saying that it wouldn’t be.
This is dangerous stuff:
As Aaron Blake suggests, this kind of rhetoric at least could “plant a seed” in his supporters’ minds that violence might reasonably occur, if they feel sufficiently “wronged by the political process.” And Trump regularly indulges in all kinds of lies about such wrongs, whether it’s spinning ludicrous fantasies about a deep state plot to reverse the election or telling his supporters that the media is the “enemy of the people.”
And there’s this:
There’s one other point that gets lost at these moments, which is that Trump has repeatedly been put on notice that his rhetoric is leading to terrible consequences. Recall that remarkable conversation between Trump and New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, in which Sulzberger urged Trump to understand that his attacks on the press – such as his “enemy of the people” claim – are emboldening “dictators and tyrants” to suppress the free and independent press in multiple other countries.
Informed of this fact, Trump said: “I’m not happy to hear that,” and added that “I want to be” a defender of the free press. But he just can’t do this, as much as he’d like to, because the press keeps provoking his attacks by unfairly criticizing him.
Needless to say, since that conversation, Trump has kept right on attacking the media as the enemy of the people. Really, this is a very lamentable state of affairs. It’s really too bad that the press won’t stop making him do this.
Similarly, it would be just terrible if his supporters were incited to violence by conditions not of their own making. It would be very bad, very bad. We’d better hope that doesn’t happen.
Sarcasm seldom helps an argument, but here it does. So far, a small group of Republican senators decided to do what they could to help preserve the legislative branch of government here. That may not be enough.