It felt like an escape from “Crazytown,” as Trump-era Washington was described in Bob Woodward’s book, “Fear.” Legislators didn’t just eat, drink and socialize with one another together on the trip, sharing a fellowship that is increasingly rare on Capitol Hill. They also worked together to shape common positions on major foreign and domestic issues, from Afghanistan to climate change.
Trump was tweeting away as usual during the lawmakers’ trip, but nobody seemed to notice. The congressional delegation (or CODEL) to the Munich Security Conference was led by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and included nine senators and 12 House members, 13 Republicans and eight Democrats.
The spirit animating the journey seemed to be that of the late Sen. John McCain, who made an annual pilgrimage to the Munich event, which he saw as a symbol of the U.S.-led Western alliance and the international order it helped create. It would have deeply troubled McCain that the theme of this year’s gathering was “Westlessness.”
In the relaxed atmosphere, members talked more easily with each other and the press than is often possible in the overheated and polarized environment of today’s Washington. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said that more cooperation takes place behind the scenes on Capitol Hill than is usually reported. But Trump and the media circus that surrounds him overwhelm those moments.
Graham explained the benefit of getting out of the hothouse. “In Washington, you’re always answering a question about, ‘Trump just said this. What do you think?’ Traveling is a welcome break from the tweet of the day. Over here, we’re not under that pressure.”
Politicians from both parties expressed similar views on a broad range of issues. Take Trump’s peace plan for Afghanistan. Democratic Sens. Christopher A. Coons (Del.), Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Whitehouse told me they shared the concerns of Republican Graham about the risks of withdrawing too quickly and the possible need for a residual U.S. presence.
Similar consensus seemed to emerge on the issue of U.S. military support for French troops fighting Islamic extremists in the Sahel region of Africa. When the group met with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who has been weighing a cutoff in this assistance, many members urged him to keep backing our French allies against terrorism.
A year ago, the members of the Munich CODEL were so concerned about Trump’s planned withdrawal from northeast Syria that they composed a joint letter, which Whitehouse drafted on his iPad and Graham delivered to the White House. That bipartisan message seemed to slow Trump’s rush for the exit.
“I don’t know the bird between a hawk and a dove, but that bird is alive and well,” Graham argued in an interview. He said Republicans these days are warier of overseas military adventures, and Democrats are less enthusiastic about quick troop pullouts.
A common front may be emerging even on climate change. Graham said publicly in Munich that climate change is real, and action is needed. “Conservatives have to embrace science” and understand that young Republicans take the issue as seriously as do Democrats, he told me. Graham said he has advised Trump: “A conservative party can’t grow without a rational climate policy.”
Graham is the rare Republican who can criticize Trump publicly and get away with it. That’s partly because he has been Trump’s biggest cheerleader on issues such as impeachment. Graham explained his balancing act this way: “The president has enough enemies, and he’s short of friends. He’s let me be in his world. I want him to be successful. . . . He will tolerate criticism if he thinks you want him to succeed.”
In today’s Washington, it’s dangerous to do the right thing. Republicans who voiced even mild criticism of Trump during the Senate impeachment trial faced immediate retaliation from Trump’s White House. Democrats, too, get nervous about reprisals if they’re seen as too cooperative with anyone from Trump’s party. When the group toasted McCain at a noisy dinner Saturday night, it was an echo of another time.
Eventually, the big blue plane marked “United States of America” landed at Joint Base Andrews, and we all started checking our Twitter feeds again. But this trip was a reminder of what normal order looks like — and that regaining our political balance isn’t as impossible as it sometimes seems.