The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want national security oversight? Don’t leave it to Republicans.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump shake hands during their meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017. (Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin)

Let’s put aside ideology. Let’s put aside policy. For now, let’s focus on national security.

Congress, a coequal branch of government, has inexcusably refused to conduct one of its key functions: proper oversight. Instead of checking the executive branch, characters such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) spend their time making up phony scandals and playing defense for a president intent on disrupting an ongoing investigation into his and his campaign’s possible wrongdoing. For a party that bird-dogged the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama (on Benghazi, on the IRS, on Fast & Furious, etc.), its refusal to take actual scandals and malfeasance seriously, especially when national security is involved, typifies its willingness to put loyalty to President Trump over obligations to the country.

For example, NBC News reports:

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine is demanding the release of a secret memo outlining President Trump’s interpretation of his legal authority to wage war.
Kaine, a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, sent a letter Thursday night to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeking a 7-page memo the administration has kept under wraps for months.
Kaine has been leading the charge for Trump to outline his legal rationale for a U.S. bombing campaign in Syria last April in response President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks on civilians in that country. The Virginia Senator and others worry that such action compromises congressional oversight over military action. … According to a court filing provided by Protect Democracy, a bipartisan group of lawyers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was briefed last April on the substance of the memo. Sessions received the briefing so he could know “how to advise the president on future actions,” the filing said, citing a [Justice Department] attorney. (An intelligent conversation can be found here.)
Where is the GOP, which challenged Obama’s use of war powers in Libya and in continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not even the self-described constitutional conservatives (e.g. Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee) have bothered to look into the rationale for the Syria strike, and certainly the chairmen of the appropriate oversight committees in the House and Senate have not. After years of heckling a Democratic president for running roughshod over Congress, Republicans are remarkably indifferent to this president’s refusal even to explain his rationale for unilateral actions.
Conservative David French (no dove or opponent of robust Article II powers) wrote: “Put simply, it’s increasingly clear that years of presidential overreach, congressional inaction, and partisan bickering have jeopardized our constitutional structure. We are steadily moving away from the separation of powers and toward an unconstitutional legal regime that places sole war-making authority in the hands of an increasingly imperial presidency. This is wrong. It’s dangerous. It has to stop.” This matters greatly, as he pointed out, given “widespread reports that the president is considering launching a ‘bloody nose’ strike against North Korea — a strike designed to send the strongest possible message, short of all-out war.”
Too busy concocting conspiracy theories and wrecking the existing oversight functions, the Republicans in Congress also refuse to investigate a real security problem at the White House. The Post reports:
Intelligence oversight committees looking for actual threats to national security might start demanding an accounting of those who lack clearances and an explanation as to how someone such as Rob Porter can remain in his job. They do have the power to legislate, of course, and if they wanted, could pass legislation eliminating open-ended temporary security clearances. The Post explains:
A responsible Congress dedicated to protecting national security would do something about this.
Finally, while the president lacks interest in protecting the U.S. electoral system from sabotage, Congress has no excuse for refusing to act on its own initiative. This week, we learned from Jeanette Manfra, head of cybersecurity at the Homeland Security Department, that Russia targeted the voting apparatus of 21 states, some successfully. (“We saw a targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated. Jeh Johnson, who was DHS secretary during the Russian intrusions, said, ‘2016 was a wake-up call and now it’s incumbent upon states and the Feds to do something about it before our democracy is attacked again.'”) Senate Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee put out a detailed report in January documenting Russian interference with elections in the United States and other Western democracies, while Republicans failed to participate.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), in a statement accompanying that report, declared: “This threat existed long before President Trump took office, and unless he takes action now, it will continue long after his administration. While President Trump stands practically idle, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin continues to refine his asymmetric arsenal and look for future opportunities to disrupt governance and erode support for the democratic and international institutions that the United States and Europe have built over the last 70 years.” The GOP-led Congress stands idle as well. Many bills with bipartisan sponsorship have been introduced, but none is being moved along. The president doesn’t want to admit that Russia helped him win the election, and so he won’t investigate and protect against future threats, and the cowardly GOP-led Congress won’t move ahead either for fear of upsetting the president. Once again, we see it’s Trump First, America Second.