Rift in GOP gives Democrats an opening to put up barriers between Trump and Russia probe

In Nation
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(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Democrats may have a new opening to set boundaries on President Trump’s authority over the investigations into his 2016 presidential campaign.

For the past week, Trump and his allies have been hammering away at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the GOP’s failed attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Trump has mocked McConnell and his lieutenants on social media for abandoning the health-care effort. Coupled with Trump’s recent attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the rift between the president and Senate Republicans is growing.

Now the question is whether Democrats can seize on these moments and extract actual results in putting up barriers between Trump, the Justice Department and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.

So far, Democrats have devoted most of their time to forging a new policy agenda to show voters next year what they would do if given power. They want voters to know the party would do more than just investigate Trump and focus on scandals.

That focus has left a void in their messaging regarding the Russia investigation. It sometimes leads to a cacophony of voices and ideas shouted into the winds of the Internet every time there’s a new revelation about Trump’s campaign and ties to Russia.

Some Democrats want to forge a broad bipartisan coalition to put the brakes on Trump, even if it means setting aside policy disputes for the time being.

“We’re going to need a temporary alliance of progressives and conservatives to save the country, and then we can get back to fighting over the size and scope of the government,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in an interview before Congress left earlier this month for the August recess. “This is a national emergency, and we’re going to have to lay down our arms on some of these public-policy issues long enough to reassert that there are, in fact, three separate, coequal branches of government and we are a county of laws and not men.”

But others suggest that investigations by Mueller and the House and Senate intelligence committees are well underway and that Democrats need patience.

“We’re seriously into it, and I have to say that the Republicans, they’re not obstructing anymore. They are all moving forward and they all understand how serious this is,” said Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and serves on the intelligence panel.

This Democratic dilemma was captured the night that Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) posted an excerpt from his new book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” criticizing congressional Republican leaders for not forcefully confronting Trump during the 2016 campaign.

Three top Democratic strategists reacted completely differently to the Arizona Republican’s criticism of his own party. “Brave and well argued. I hope both sides have his back,” Robby Mook, the 2016 campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, tweeted.

“I’m much more concerned with his actual voting record. Writing a column is a lot easier than voting against TrumpCare,” Guy Cecil, head of the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, tweeted.

Brian Fallon, a top press aide in the Clinton campaign, called the Flake book the equivalent of “just a bunch” of tweets “[u]ntil it is matched by any real action.”

For now, there has been little to no effort by Democrats to define “any real action.” Do they expect Republicans to vote against Trump’s policy positions because of the shadow of the Russia investigation? Do they want to push for impeachment proceedings? Do they want Republicans to join Flake in a chorus of Trump criticism?

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wants Republicans to start backing up their critiques of Trump with legislative action. After Trump tried to implement an entry ban affecting several majority-Muslim nations, Murphy introduced legislation to block the executive order and hoped for bipartisan support, given how many Republicans criticized Trump’s call for such a ban during the presidential campaign.

“I heard a lot of Republicans vigorously complain about the Muslim ban, but none of them were willing to move legislation to stop it,” Murphy said.

He applauded Republicans for joining Democrats in approving new sanctions against Russia, overwhelmingly passing legislation that also tied Trump’s hands if he tried to waive those penalties.

A good first step for Democrats might be pressuring more Republicans to support proposed legislation that would restrict a president’s ability to fire a special counsel, considering two high-profile Republicans are already supporting such an effort.

Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) have each joined Democrats to offer bills that would require a panel of judges to sign off on the firing of Mueller or any special counsel. This would limit the president’s and the attorney general’s ability to shut down the investigation.

Given Senate Republicans’ current feelings toward Trump, Democrats might be able to get many Republicans to sign on to one or both bills, sending a warning shot at the president.

Schatz said those are the sort of actions that he is looking for in Republicans, hoping that more of them would publicly declare that “one of the bright lines” that Trump cannot cross would be firing Sessions or Mueller.

Schatz, firmly in his caucus’s liberal wing, dismissed his allies who are critical of Republicans for continuing to vote in a conservative direction. He does not expect Republicans to start opposing conservative legislation or nominees such as Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch just because Trump is president.

“That’s a misunderstanding of who Jeff Flake is; he’s a conservative,” Schatz said. “We can’t expect them to become Democrats, but we want them to be small-R republicans, and we need them to help the president understand what the boundaries are in a republic.”

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