Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) says the Republican president in the White House is not displaying the conservatism his party should be embracing. In his new book, "Conscience of a Conservative," Flake says populism and protectionism are as threatening to the GOP now as the New Deal was in 1960. (Dalton Bennett,Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The relationship between President Trump and Republicans in Congress is rapidly deteriorating. At least, that is the clear impression one gets from a spate of recent headlines, such as “Trump distances himself from GOP lawmakers to avoid blame if agenda stalls,” “Deepening GOP split, Trump attacks Republican senators” and “Trump sticks it to GOP.” The problem, as those headlines indicate, is that the feud is largely one-sided.

Almost every day, Trump demonstrates that he is utterly unfit for office. In the past few days alone, as a catastrophic hurricane devastated the fourth-largest city in the country, Trump pardoned former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio — who defied a court order to stop illegally profiling Latinos and committed grotesque abuses of power for years — and tweeted nonsense about Mexico paying for “the wall” on the southern border. And yet, despite the president’s intensifying attacks on members of his own party, Republican leaders still have not shown the spine necessary to confront him in any meaningful way. Even the relatively few conservative lawmakers who have spoken out forcefully against Trump, particularly in response to his abominable reaction to the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va., have failed to back up their words with concrete actions.

Ask yourself this: Who in the Republican Party is even attempting to hold him accountable?

Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) might be the closest Trump comes to having a true Republican antagonist in Washington. In his new book, Flake correctly argues that his party “all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump” and accuses his co-partisans of being in denial. In return, Trump has praised Flake’s right-wing primary challenger and slammed his positions on crime and border security. Yet while Flake’s recriminations may help him sell books and win fans in the establishment media, they will do nothing to rein in a presidency that he portrays as a danger to democracy. Meanwhile, Flake has voted in line with Trump’s position roughly 94 percent of the time, and he responded to Trump’s personal attacks last week by talking up his desire to “work with the president.”

Like Flake, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has cultivated a reputation for being a principled Trump opponent. He has denounced Trump’s tweets and admonished him for “trying to weaponize distrust” of the press. But aside from his lofty words — he is also promoting a book — Sasse has done virtually nothing to distinguish himself from any other partisan loyalist. Like Flake, he has consistently supported Trump’s agenda and voted to confirm extreme and unqualified nominees, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. As Ben Mathis-Lilley recently wrote, “If Nebraskans had elected a cravenly partisan alt-right bozo as their senator in 2014 instead of a genial Ph.D., American public life would be little different today.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in Oxon Hill, Md., on March 3. (Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

After Flake and Sasse, there is a small cadre of conservatives who seem to relish the attention they receive for occasionally criticizing Trump, even as they heap praise upon him when it serves their interests, as if offering positive reinforcement to a poorly behaved pet. For example, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) blasted Trump for “dividing Americans” following the terror in Charlottesville. Just a few days later, however, he celebrated Trump’s ill-advised decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan by applauding him for “showing the will to stand up to Radical Islam . . . unlike President Obama.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sharply criticized the pardon of Arpaio, but he, too, enthusiastically praised Trump for his “new strategy” in Afghanistan.

To be fair, Trump is a more conventional Republican than many Republicans would care to admit, so their overwhelming support for his policies of deregulation, draconian budget cuts and tax cuts for the rich is expected. But even so, there are plenty of ways that congressional Republicans could stand up to the president if they wanted to. They could convene hearings on the rise of white nationalism or sign onto the Democratic resolution censuring Trump for equating neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville. They could investigate Trump’s conflicts of interest or empower the Office of Government Ethics to conduct stricter oversight of the executive branch. They could force Trump to finally release his tax returns. “The real question is not whether Republicans can do something about Trump,” historian Julian Zelizer says, “but whether they have the will or the courage to do so.” At this point, they clearly do not.

Like everything else involving Trump, the rift between him and Republicans in Congress is personal: They don’t like each other. But while their personal relationships may be souring, they are still politically bound together. As long as Republicans fail to show the moral or political courage to hold Trump accountable, the whole party is complicit.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.