Democracy Dies in Darkness


McCain’s death marks a new era for congressional checks on Trump

August 25, 2018 at 7:39 PM

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) departs after answering questions from journalists before he joined Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in voting against the GOP bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Lt. John S. McCain III and his parents, Roberta McCain and Adm. John S. McCain Jr., attend the ceremony to commission McCain Field in Meridian, Miss., named for the younger McCain’s grandfather, also an admiral.
This photo purports to show McCain being pulled from Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake after his fighter jet was shot down over the North Vietnamese capital.
McCain lies on a bed in North Vietnam, where he spent 5 ½ years as a prisoner after his plane was shot down.
McCain is escorted to Hanoi's Gia Lam Airport after his release.
McCain limps down a ramp at Clark Air Base in the Philippines after leaving Hanoi.
McCain waves to supporters at the Jacksonville, Fla., naval base with his first wife, Carol, by his side.
President Richard M. Nixon greets McCain in Washington, where the officer quickly developed political contacts. He would enter Congress less than a decade later.
In 1982, McCain was elected to the House of Representatives. Three years later, the Arizona congressman stopped in Bangkok on his way to Hanoi and held up a photo of a marker at Truc Bach Lake, where he parachuted after his fighter jet was shot down during the Vietnam War.
Sen. McCain addresses the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. He chided then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s Democratic opponent for not understanding the importance of the military: “Michael Dukakis seems to believe that the Trident is a chewing gum, that the B-1 is a vitamin pill and that the Midgetman is anyone shorter than he is.”
Sen. McCain, center, and his second wife, Cindy, stand during a ceremony at the Hanoi airport before the remains of American soldiers who had been missing in action were returned to the country.
Sen. McCain testifies in a Los Angeles courtroom during the fraud trial of former Lincoln Savings and Loan head Charles H. Keating Jr. Sen. McCain was part of the “Keating Five,” a group of lawmakers accused of trying to pressure federal bank regulators to back off their investigation. Keating had contributed heavily to Sen. McCain’s campaigns, and the McCains had taken at least nine trips, at Keating’s expense, to the Bahamas. In the end, the Senate Ethics Committee found only that Sen. McCain used “poor judgment.”
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), left, chairman of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, talks with Sen. McCain before a hearing. Fourteen years later, Kerry contemplated offering Sen. McCain the second spot on his ticket during his run against President George W. Bush.
Sen. McCain shakes hands with supporters moments after announcing his plans to run for president during a rally in Nashua, N.H. He held a record 114 town hall meetings in the state (while effectively ignoring the Iowa caucuses) and pulled off an 18-point primary victory over then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
Sen. McCain brought his family on stage for a speech in Bluffton, S.C., the state where the primary campaign truly got nasty and Sen. McCain’s campaign effectively stalled. He was the target of rumors: that he had fathered a black child (twisting the facts about his dark-skinned adopted daughter); that his wife, Cindy, had a drug habit (she acknowledged having been addicted to painkillers and stealing them from a charity she ran); and that his years as a POW had left him brainwashed and insane.
Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), left, Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and McCain share a laugh before the start of a committee hearing on President George W. Bush’s proposed guest-worker program for new immigrants and some in the country illegally.
Sen. McCain and Jon Stewart talk during a break from taping “The Daily Show” in New York. Of McCain’s apparent shift to the right in his second run for president, Stewart asked, “Are you going into crazy base world?” Sen. McCain deadpanned, “I’m afraid so.”
Sen. McCain speaks to supporters at the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, in Washington. In his second presidential run, he did more to court the traditional Republican base.
President George W. Bush and Sen. McCain meet at the White House for lunch and an endorsement from the president.
Sen. McCain and his vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, hold a rally in Hershey, Pa.
Sen. McCain, the Republican candidate for president in 2008, greets supporters at a rally in Prescott, Ariz., on the day before the general election.
Sen. McCain walks to a rally with Cindy McCain and their daughter Megan in Roswell, New Mexico.
Sen. McCain attacked then-Sen. Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials during their first presidential debate, at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
Sen. McCain speaks at a campaign rally in Defiance, Ohio.
Sen. McCain, left, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) speak to reporters off the Senate floor after Republicans blocked consideration of a defense authorization bill.
Sen. McCain wears a Navy hat given to him by a member of the Patriot Guard Riders as he and Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina prepare for a group picture in San Diego.
Sen. McCain lends his support to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Manchester Central High School in New Hampshire.
Sen. McCain in 2013 called on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify on the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. McCain later alleged a “coverup” in the White House’s handling of the aftermath.
Sen. McCain, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), center, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have some fun in the Capitol before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Sen. McCain and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a fellow Armed Services Committee member, arrive on Capitol Hill for a hearing on the appointments of military leaders.
Sen. McCain defends his proposed immigration overhaul to an angry crowd in Arizona. It passed with strong bipartisan support in the Senate later that year and would have provided a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants in th country illegally. The House never took it up for consideration, though, and the legislation died.
Sen. McCain speaks with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on a Capitol Hill Metro train.
Sen. McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, talks to reporters in Washington about the Senate's consideration of military assistance for Jordan to fight Islamic State militants. When Sen. McCain got the gavel of the committee in 2015, he told The Washington Post he was having more fun than at any time since his 2000 presidential campaign.
Journalists surround Sen. McCain as he walks to the Senate floor for a vote.
Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), left, McCain and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) talk at the White House before President Trump meets with Republicans to discuss health care. Sen. McCain was one of three Republicans to vote no on a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, torpedoing one of his party’s top priorities.
As Washington gears up to send more troops to Afghanistan, Sen. McCain joins Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), left, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) at the NATO-led Resolute Support mission’s headquarters in Kabul.
A still image from video shows Senator McCain, who had been recuperating in Arizona after being diagnosed with brain cancer, acknowledging applause as he arrives on the floor of the U.S. Senate after returning to Washington for a vote on healthcare reform.
Sen. McCain, at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington.
Photo Gallery: Sen. John S. McCain III (R-Ariz.), a prisoner of war in Vietnam and a two-time presidential candidate, was known for his unfiltered opinions and willingness to buck Republican Party orthodoxy.

Sen. John McCain’s death heralds a sea change for congressional challenges to the Trump administration on national security, as the president’s two most vocal Republican critics pass their powerful committee gavels to two of President Trump’s biggest supporters.

McCain (R-Ariz.), who used his chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee to question the president’s stance on issues such as Russia, torture and immigration, leaves control to Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has been a one-man Greek chorus of epithets decrying Trump’s chaotic approach to diplomacy, will hand the reins to Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) at the start of the new year.

The departure of either committee chairman would be noteworthy, as both have attracted considerable attention for criticizing the White House for foreign policies they deem flawed. But together, they portend a sweeping change in how Congress may use its oversight authority to check the president’s international agenda, according to current and former lawmakers, lobbyists and policy watchers — a changing of the guard with potentially enormous consequences for holding the president to account during crises.

“Corker and McCain, the way they have led those committees, have been exceptions to the rule. . . . Both have done a good job of really probing and questioning and disagreeing with their own Republican president when they needed to,” said former defense secretary Chuck Hagel, who also served in the Senate as a Republican alongside McCain, Corker, Inhofe and Risch. “That will shift — there’s no question about it.”

McCain and Corker have been celebrated for the tenacity they have brought to oversight of both Democratic and Republican administrations. As a former presidential candidate, Vietnam War hero and one of the most recognizable American statesmen on the world stage, McCain was one of the few lawmakers who could often command more authority on national security than the commander in chief — which he used to dare presidents to cross him.

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The Arizona Republican spent decades in the Senate. He endured more than five years of imprisonment and torture by the North Vietnamese as a young Navy pilot. (Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Since Trump took office, that has happened most frequently on matters concerning Russia.

McCain and Corker have been as pointed in their criticism of Trump’s actions vis-a-vis Russian President Vladimir Putin as they were instrumental last year in getting Congress to pass sanctions that checked the president’s authority to scale back punitive measures against Moscow without lawmakers’ approval.

Both also led repeated legislative efforts to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to NATO in the face of presidential statements they thought were intentionally designed to undermine it.

“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain said of Trump’s performance during a July summit in Helsinki, in which the U.S. president suggested that he might take Putin’s denials of interference in the 2016 election over the findings of the U.S. intelligence community.

“The Helsinki conference was a sad day for our country, and everyone knows it,” Corker said, calling Trump’s performance “deplorable.”

Such commentary earned them the jeers of the president and his allies but the cheers of the foreign policy establishment — and the previous administration.

“I don’t like to picture a Senate without Bob Corker and John McCain . . . sometimes we butted heads hard, but I never doubted for a second that they were serious,” former secretary of state John F. Kerry said in an email.

McCain and Corker both grilled Kerry fiercely over the Obama administration’s policies, including a deal with Iran to end crippling sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Both lawmakers opposed the deal, although Corker, who led the legislative effort to guarantee that Congress could review the pact, later urged Trump not to withdraw from it.

“You need enough people like that on both sides to create a critical mass to get something done, otherwise you have a big flashing disincentive that empowers the worst actors to call the shots,” Kerry said.

Colleagues fear the Senate will lose that edge once Inhofe and Risch take over, concerned that they will be more acquiescent to the White House.

“We’ve transferred a lot of authority to the executive over the years . . . and I’m concerned that new leadership that is closer to the president doesn’t view as skeptically as it should executive power,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has also criticized Trump’s approach to foreign policy and is also retiring at the end of his term. “I think they’re less likely to question moves by the president . . . it’s going to be less independent.”

McCain’s death comes at a critical juncture, as the Trump administration places steep tariffs on adversary and allied nations and attempts, in fits and starts, to strike a historic denuclearization agreement with North Korea — one that has eluded previous administrations for decades.

Democrats and Republicans alike have railed against the tariffs and expressed skepticism about the likelihood of talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un succeeding. They have challenged Trump’s team to articulate a clearer strategy to hold Pyongyang to account — not only for its nuclear arsenal, but the aggression and threats it carries out in cyberspace, via biological and chemical weapons, and against the human rights of its own people.

But from their perch on their respective panels, Inhofe and Risch have chided those who voice doubts about the president’s ability to orchestrate a historic denuclearization deal — even when that person is the president’s own director of national intelligence.

“I’m a little more optimistic than your ‘hope springs eternal,’ Dan, and I want to think that this aggressive behavior of our president is going to have a positive effect on [Kim],” Inhofe said to Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats this year during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, after Coats expressed skepticism that the North Korean leader would ever give up his nuclear weapons.

More recently, Risch effectively admonished lawmakers who have expressed concern that Trump might overlook Kim’s poor human rights record to strike a deal, urging them to trust the president.

“Look, we’re all about human rights . . . but if you try to overload this and try to resolve all these things at once, I think you’re just setting things up for failure,” Risch said during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on North Korea in June. “We have a different situation with President Trump than we have in the past. . . . Kim Jong Un recognizes that he’s dealing with a person who has a very strong personality, and he’s not going to tolerate the kinds of things that have happened in the past.”

In general, both Risch and Inhofe have approached the business of executive oversight with less zeal than either McCain or Corker.

Inhofe took the reins of the Armed Services Committee as McCain remained in Arizona since December, undergoing treatment for brain cancer. Inhofe has worked with McCain’s staff through the summer to steer a record-setting $716 billion measure outlining defense priorities through Congress. But even that bill — named after McCain this year, although Trump did not mention his name at the signing — bears marks of the late senator that experts think Inhofe will be hard-pressed to replicate.

For years, McCain waged a battle against the Defense Department to reduce excessive spending on costly programs, such as the F-35 fighter jet and the Ford class aircraft carrier. He was credited with driving an investigation that exposed the George W. Bush administration’s Air Force tanker lease deal that seemingly shortchanged Boeing, a recent defense spending scandal. Lobbyists have also long eyed Inhofe as more deferential to the department and sympathetic to the contracting industry than McCain.

But McCain has also been one of the chief champions of increasing military spending, taking on Trump last year.

“What he did was remarkable: The president of his own party put forth a budget, and he put forth an alternate budget and strategy saying, ‘My own party is underfunding the Department of Defense,’ ” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert with the American Enterprise Institute. “[McCain] went farther than [Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis had gone. And he won. . . . I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) eventually deferred to McCain over Trump, and the bill secured veto-proof majorities in Congress. It was the second time in a year that a McCain-backed bill had forced Trump to sign a foreign or defense policy he had pushed against — the first being the legislation that gave Congress the power to block conciliatory moves on Russia sanctions.

Since McCain’s diagnosis, his faceoffs with Trump were largely restricted to official statements and through Twitter, where the senator made a point of reserving carefully worded vitriol for the matters that most defined him. On the matter of torture, he challenged lawmakers to vote against confirming now-CIA Director Gina Haspel, who was involved in the agency’s interrogation program. On the rule of law and matters concerning allegations of Russian interference, he reprimanded Trump for attacking special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his investigation. And in response to Trump’s statements flouting long-standing global alliances, he has gone around the president to address other nations on behalf of the American people.

“Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t,” he wrote on Twitter after Trump’s break with the Group of Seven.

McCain hasn’t been entirely alone in the GOP in his criticism. Flake and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) joined him in opposing Haspel, while several Senate Republicans similarly excoriated the president over his deference to Putin in Helsinki, admonished the president for attacking Mueller, and blasted him for disregarding the United States’ oldest allies.

But lawmakers openly wonder whether, in the era of Trump, there is anyone in Congress who can fill the void McCain and Corker will leave.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) ticks off the names of five Republican senators who could step up — Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Todd C. Young (Ind.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.).

“These are all folks who have shown some independence and taken some initiative. You don’t leap from being a first-term senator to being a John McCain, but there is an opening,” said Coons, a close friend of McCain’s.

“I think it is a tragedy Senator Corker served only two terms. I think he had a great deal more to give us,” Coons said. “And it’s an equal but greater tragedy that Senator McCain will not be with us for another decade. We need both heroes and fighters, and McCain and Corker are both.”

An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect number of hearings held by Sen. James E. Risch. As subcommittee chairman, he has held five hearings since Trump was sworn in.

Related: Read more at PowerPost

Karoun Demirjian is a congressional reporter covering national security, including defense, foreign policy, intelligence and matters concerning the judiciary. She was previously a correspondent based in The Post's bureau in Moscow.

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