- Sen. Deb Fischer (Neb.): “He can say whatever he wants.”
- Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.): “I’m not overly concerned.”
- Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.): “I’m not concerned about the president saying that he thinks he won the election.”
Perhaps the best Profile in Cowardice is Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma. Last week, he said he’d step in by last Friday if President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris did not start receiving intelligence briefings. This week, however, he said in a Newsmax interview that, “I’m not in a hurry, necessarily, to get Joe Biden these briefings.” Then he claimed to CNN that he had stepped in but was satisfied with what was happening, a puzzling assertion at best. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts hopes that someone locates Lankford’s moral compass — presumably lost somewhere in the Beltway swamp — before it sinks into the mire.
This tolerance of Trump’s temper tantrum, despite all its deleterious effects, suggests Republican senators are not going to resist Trump at all despite his lame-duck status. This suggestion would be wrong, however, based on the past 48 hours. It is worth exploring the areas where some Republican senators have decided to break with the president to see what is going on.
In two recent instances, Senate Republicans have partially or completely broken with Trump. The first issue is Afghanistan. On Monday, reports started flying that Trump planned to reduce U.S. forces in that country down to a residual 2,500 before he leaves the White House. According to Politico’s Andrew Desiderio, those same Senate Republicans who have backed Trump’s fantasyland position on the election are going on the record in vocal opposition:
- McConnell (Ky.): “A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm.”
- Marco Rubio (Fla.): “The concern would be it would turn into a Saigon-type of situation where it would fall very quickly and then our ability to conduct operations against terrorist elements in the region could be compromised.”
- Mike Rounds (S.D): “You can’t simply unilaterally draw down troops. I think it’s a serious mistake to unilaterally walk away.”
- John Barrasso (Wyo.): “[I am] hoping that the president listens and takes advice from the men and women on the ground, the commanders in the field.”
This isn’t Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressing concern or disappointment: These are some of Trump’s most loyal acolytes pushing back.
The other area where some Republicans are pushing back on Trump is his appointments to the Federal Reserve. For months, Trump has been pushing the Senate to approve Judy Shelton for a position on the Board of Governors. Shelton is so out there that even the National Review thinks she should not be confirmed.
When Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) signaled her support for Shelton last week, McConnell filed for cloture, figuring he had a majority. But then Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced his opposition, joining Collins and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). On Tuesday, Republicans failed to muster a majority. Their window to confirm Shelton will close once Mark Kelly replaces Martha McSally as Arizona’s junior senator at the end of this month, and Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s coronavirus diagnosis will make it hard for McConnell to muster a majority. The just-enough GOP opposition to Trump’s Fed pick echoes Trump’s failure to appoint either Herman Cain or Stephen Moore to the Fed board.
So, is there a pattern here? Why would the GOP back Trump’s denial about losing the election but oppose him on Afghanistan and (to some extent) Fed appointments?
The answer, unsurprisingly, seems to be a mix of politics and policy. There remain significant differences between the “institutional” wing of the GOP and the populist wing. Foreign policy might be the area of greatest difference. Republicans legitimately oppose Trump’s hasty moves on Afghanistan, and enough of them oppose Trump’s oddball Fed choices because that is not an institution that should be Trumpified.
The policy differences are real, but here’s the other part of the equation: Opposing Trump on these issues does not matter politically. Few in Trump’s base care about foreign policy, and no one understands monetary policy. On these issues, standing athwart Trump yelling “Stop!” carries minimal costs. Publicly contradicting him on his election narrative, on the other hand, does alienate his base.
Trump has nine weeks left as president. He will attempt to lock in as many of his policies as possible. The congressional wing of the GOP will kowtow to his whims on issues of high salience to his base. On everything else, however, expect to see a purely transactional partnership.