Republicans in Congress may be totally dismayed that President Trump shared highly classified information with the Russians. Almost no one on Capitol Hill is helping to defend the president on this.
But unless Republicans want to get seriously confrontational with Trump, being dismayed is pretty much all they can do about the fact that the president shared classified information with an adversarial nation.
That's because the options available to Congress — (a) reprimand Trump or (b) try to prevent him from doing this again — are antagonistic in nature, if they exist at all.
And even though we've found exactly zero Republicans who agree with what Trump did, there's also zero indication that the majority of them want to start a conflict with Trump over it.
To get a better understanding of why Congress is stuck right now on what to do with Trump, let's walk through their options.
1. Request transcripts of the conversation
Two House Republicans have publicly asked for transcripts of the Oval Office meeting last week between Trump and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak where, The Washington Post reports, Trump began describing details of an Islamic State terrorist plot that were highly classified and weren't his to share. (No U.S. reporters or photographers were allowed in, but, hey, it's possible Trump records these conversations, right?)
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday he's asked the White House to give his committee more information.
But! Trump can (and has) easily brushed off the handful of Republicans who join Democrats every time there's a controversy to demand some sort of transparency.
If Trump doesn't want to give the transcripts over, then he doesn't have to. Unless Congress wants to go to step two ...
2. Subpoena the transcript
If Congress really wants to find out what Trump said, it could legally demand Trump hand over the transcript by subpoenaing the president for it.
But! While Democrats would probably be amenable to this, a subpoena would require Republicans to agree to it, since committee chairs who have jurisdiction over classified information have the authority to subpoena the president. (Or a majority of a committee could override a chair and issue a subpoena. But that would take at least a couple of Republicans.)
3. Hold hearings about the transcript?
This one has a question mark, because it's not clear what Congress would do once it got a document that proved what Trump did or didn't say in that room with the Russians.
But! The document would almost certainly be classified, says Brookings Institution congressional expert Molly Reynolds, which means it'd be limited to members of the House and Senate intelligence committees and leaders of each chamber. What would those leaders do if they found something in there they didn't like? Hold public hearings? On what? It's the president's prerogative to disclose classified information as the president sees fit.
Which brings us to …
4. Change the law about classified information
Theoretically Congress could pass a law taking away the president's discretion on what the president can or cannot classify and talk about.
But! Mieke Eoyang, a former Democratic intelligence staffer now with the Third Way think tank, says any attempt by Congress to try to limit the president's powers like this is probably on shaky constitutional footing. “The president’s classification authority derives from his commander in chief power as set out in Article I of the Constitution,” she says.
Another but! Trump would probably veto it anyway.
5. Vote to hold the president in contempt, or
6. start impeachment proceedings
Now we get to the really antagonistic tools in Congress's kit. Congress could vote to hold the president in contempt of Congress, or it could take things a step further and start impeachment proceedings.
But! Both those things require a majority of Congress to move forward, and that brings us right back to where we started: There is no consensus on what to do about the fact Trump shared secrets with Russia, and nowhere near enough Republicans to deploy the only real leverage it has over the president: impeachment. (Like, we count a grand total of zero Republicans who have entertained the notion of the “i” word.)
(It's probably no coincidence that the past three presidential impeachment proceedings in history — Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — were conducted by a Congress of an opposing party.)
Republicans appear to be calculating that the benefit of having a Republican president for the first time in eight years far outweighs the headaches he's bringing them.