Donald Trump’s responses to the ugly events in Charlottesville demonstrated once again his glaring deficiencies in character, temperament and competence. As summarized in Lawfare:
Commentators are debating whether he is revealing himself as sympathetic to the white nationalist program, fearful of alienating that constituency, or just unable to respond to criticism in any way other than by “doubling down” and lashing out. The first of these possibilities is the most damning, of course, but neither of the other two is helpful to him or his presidency. And all three could be in some combination true. At a minimum, Trump faces the charges that, in courting the vilest of political support, he is a dangerously reckless president, and that, in allowing his political interests to control his response to Charlottesville, he has shown that he is far too small for the office.
Trump attempted to address Charlottesville in a series of often contradictory statements and tweets that suggested the role of Pretzel in Chief. His verbal contortions bewildered and dismayed a wide range of onlookers beginning with his own aides and radiating outward. As Peggy Noonan put it, Trump’s failure to grasp and make clear moral distinctions led him into a “tangle of rhetorical inadequacy.” As a result, Trump suffered rebukes, either explicit or clearly implied, by the nation’s senior military commanders, by leaders of business and industry and by Senators and Congressmen of both parties. Supporters were few, far between and muffled.
Rebukes from Republicans on Capitol Hill tended to be of the implied variety, as the legislators performed the quieter contortion of attempting to distance themselves from the President without attacking him and alienating his base—a base that they largely share. Thus, they took to condemning notions of white supremacy in clear terms that contrasted with Trump’s equivocations, but generally avoided direct reference to the President. One of the few direct responses, and perhaps the most devastating, came from Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker, unlike Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Jeff Flake, has been frequently supportive of Trump, but here he minced no words:
We’re at a point where there needs to be radical changes at the White House — it has to happen. He [President Trump] recently has not demonstrated that he understands the character of our nation — what has made it great and what it is today. He’s got to demonstrate the characteristics of a president who understands that. Without those things happening, our nation is going to go through great peril. . .
We should hope that he aspires, that he does some self reflection, and that he does what is necessary to demonstrate stability, to demonstrate competence and demonstrate he understands the character of our nation and works daily to bring out the best from the people of our nation. Helping to inspire divisions because it generates support from your base is not a formula for causing our nation to advance and to overcome the many issues that we have to deal with right now.
Many in the media have been critical of the relatively flabby responses of Capitol Hill Republicans. For example, in the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria assailed business leaders, evangelicals and politicians who failed to take a forthright stand, writing of the “mealy-mouthed cowardice of America’s elites.” While such a reaction might have been anticipated from Zakaria, Trump’s critics have also included conservatives. For example, Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, published a Politico essay titled, “Time for My Fellow Republicans to Stand Up and Be Counted”:
Of course, the president should not get away with this. As a Republican, I like tax cuts and smaller government as much as the next guy—but at what cost? To put up with a man who is actually making racial divisions deeper or, worse, seems to be cultivating those divisions? To support a person who seems to want to give every benefit of the doubt—“I like to know the facts”—to those who hate? To have as our leader a man who is praised by Nazi magazines? (Who knew they even had magazines? That’s information I didn’t need to possess.)
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil,” Edmund Burke famously said, “is for good men to do nothing.” Now is the time to stand up and say clearly and publicly that these comments were wrong. Now is the time to put the country ahead of the party. And for politicians in Washington, D.C., to prove they still have the ability to see the difference.
Jennifer Rubin, writing in the Washington Post, put it even more bluntly, insisting that Republicans should support a Democratic resolution censuring Trump:
They lifted this president to office and now they must disown him. The Party of Lincoln will continue, if at all, with those who are willing to condemn their own president for embracing these groups and individuals. Any Republican not willing to sign on should be voted out. Period. It’s the only litmus test that matters.
It must be acknowledged that elected Republicans are in a difficult position, and Zakaria admitted as much (“They worry about the base, about primaries, about right-wing donors.”) The reason for elected Republicans to worry about the Trump base was neatly captured in the headline of a story in Sunday’s New York Times, “Trump’s Bad Week? To Supporters It Went Just Fine.” The story noted, among other things, that “sixty-seven percent of Republicans said they approved of the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville last weekend, compared with just 10 percent of Democrats, according to a CBS News survey conducted over the past week.” The Times might have added that Independents disapproved of Trump’s actions by a margin of 53 to 32 percent.
Still, Zakaria joined others who argued that those fears should be cast aside:
But shouldn’t they also worry about their country and their conscience? Shouldn’t they ask themselves why they went into public service in the first place? And if they see someone at the highest level trampling on the values of the country, shouldn’t they speak up — directly, forcefully and without qualification?
They should indeed, but that is easier for columnists (or us bloggers) to urge than for elected officials to put into practice. They might reasonably wonder whether their act of defiance would have any practical effect other than to endanger their own careers. In any case, the urging of critics to throw caution to the winds is not likely to be widely followed unless new developments from the Special Counsel, or eruptions from Trump, change the calculus. In the near term, therefore, what Congressional Republicans should do is focus their attention on the major substantive issues before Congress.
One such issue is healthcare. If Obamacare cannot be repealed and replaced (and there is no evidence that it can be any time soon), surely there is a moral and political imperative to keep it afloat until a truly better system can be adopted. Other major challenges lie in hoped for legislation concerning infrastructure and tax reform. As to such matters, recent history suggests that Congressional Republicans are not likely to get much in the way of helpful leadership from the White House. On the other hand, they should feel liberated from the constraints of trying to conform to whatever proposals a distracted and weakened president finally comes up with. Perhaps they might also be emboldened to give the Trump Wall on our southern border the decent burial it deserves. The recently leaked transcript of the telephone call between Trump and Mexico’s president confirmed what has been clear to many from the outset: that the wall is an expensive bit of political symbolism with little or no practical value. It is a project that Mexico will never pay for and that has no place on the shoulders of beleaguered taxpayers.
Finally, there is the matter of the debt ceiling. One of the benefits that should come from having the White House and both houses of Congress held by the same party is avoidance of the periodic but inane argument over increasing the debt ceiling. In this case, however, it is not at all clear that the argument will in fact be avoided. The Treasury is expected to run out of cash in early or mid-October, and the House will be in session for only 12 days before the end of September. If Congress does not act before then and a Treasury default ensues, no one really knows what the consequences will be, but some knowledgeable observers have projected “a major disruption to the world financial system, with a stock market crash and surging interest rates that could send the economy into a recession.” In short, it is nothing to fool around with.
Nevertheless, as explained in a CBS News analysis, “Why raising the debt ceiling won’t be easy,” the self-styled “conservatives” in the Freedom Caucus may engage in their traditional mischief of demanding some sort of spending cuts as a price for increasing the debt ceiling. It is not clear what the response of the Trump administration will be, but past performance indicates that it is unlikely to be adroit. Needless to say, neither Republicans nor the president need another major embarrassment, and the wiser heads among the Republicans in Congress must find a way of ensuring that we do not suffer one in the form of a Treasury default.