This post was originally published in August and has been updated to reflect the latest news.
Congress has been reluctant to challenge President Trump. That makes sense: Trump is a Republican, and Congress is controlled by Republicans.
But every once in a while, Congress does something to make itself stand apart from Trump’s most controversial actions. It happened again Thursday, when the Senate cast two votes that were a direct rebuke to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and to President Trump, who has been reticent to blame Mohammed for the death of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Congressional watchers who spoke to The Fix have mixed opinions about whether Congress is effectively standing up to Trump. When given a choice, members often take the path of least resistance, such as passing resolutions that have no legislative sway over what Trump does or says, said Molly Reynolds, an analyst with the Brookings Institution.
But it’s notable that Congress is taking action it doesn’t have to take, said Josh Chafetz, a Cornell law professor. “It matters when members of the president’s own party are signaling it’s okay to split with the president on these issues,” he said. “That filters down to voters.”
So, how much is Congress standing up to Trump? Here are all the times the Senate, which is where most of the action is, has acted, with a rating on a scale of 1 to 5 for how effective a rebuke it was (5 being the most intense).
Condemning Crown Prince Mohammed and voting to end participation in the war in Yemen: The Senate voted unanimously Thursday on a motion to hold the crown prince responsible for Khashoggi’s death. The CIA has concluded with “high confidence” that Mohammed was behind the killing, and senators briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel this month emerged firmly convinced that he was, despite Trump’s insistence that there was no conclusive evidence about the Saudi royal’s involvement. (“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Trump said in a statement.) The Senate also voted 56 to 41 to end U.S. participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Rebuke level: We give this a 4, but it has the potential to be 5 next year. The vote on Yemen was historic — it was the first time a chamber of Congress has ever voted to invoke the War Powers Resolution. Both bills go to the House, where there isn’t as much consensus on who is responsible for Khashoggi’s death and even less on the Yemen war. However, the vote majority in the Senate was wide enough that it’s likely that it would still clear the chamber in the next Congress, which would then send it to a Democratic-controlled House.
Stopping family separations at the border: Republican leaders hated that this was happening. Even though they knew it was Trump who initiated separating young children from their parents, they were drafting legislation to stop it.
Rebuke level: On a scale of 1 to 5, this is more like a 0. Legislation would have been a big deal. But Congress backed off after Trump stopped the separations, even though some immigration experts say there’s a lot more that Congress could have done. It’s hard to say what would have happened if Trump hadn’t backed down.
Protecting the special counsel investigation: Nearly all Republican senators says they don’t think Trump should fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or other top officials overseeing the independent investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. And Trump has considered firing Mueller at least twice. But a bipartisan bill to protect the special counsel has languished as GOP leaders insist it’s not necessary.
Rebuke level: This is a 1 with the potential to be a 5. Legislation to protect Mueller passed out of a Republican-controlled committee, but Republican leaders aren’t bringing it up for a vote. If they did, it would be the Senate’s boldest move yet to stand up to Trump.
The Trump-Putin summit: Here’s another example of Trump doing something that nearly every GOP senator opposed, and the Senate not acting. He was extremely deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two leaders met in Helsinki in July, appearing to give Putin the benefit of the doubt over the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions on the Russians' election interference. Republican leaders heavily criticized Trump’s approach but backed off doing anything after Trump gave the dubious explanation that he misspoke.
Rebuke level: This could have been like a negative-5, but the Senate did something to make it a 1. It passed a resolution warning Trump not to allow Russia to question U.S. diplomats as part of what Trump called “an incredible offer” by Putin during the summit.
Trump’s attacks on the press: He has called the media the “enemy of the people.” In August, the Senate made it clear that it disagrees by passing a resolution saying “the press is not the enemy of the people.”
Rebuke level: A 1 or 2, depending how you look at it. The Senate breaking with the president by publicly expressing its own opinion on the value of a free press is symbolic, but it was also just a symbol.
Trump’s tariffs: No policy of Trump’s highlights how far apart he and congressional Republicans are than trade. Republicans generally support free trade; Trump has instituted highly restrictive trade policies in the form of tariffs on other countries’ imports. All summer, some key members of Congress pushed the Senate to do something to rein in Trump’s tariffs.
Rebuke level: A 2 out of 5. The Senate twice voted this summer to buck Trump on trade, but both measures ended up being symbolic. It passed a resolution in July saying it didn’t agree with Trump’s rationale for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs. It also overwhelmingly voted for a defense bill that would reinstate penalties for Chinese telecom giant ZTE, penalties Trump controversially lifted to save Chinese jobs. But those penalties were stripped from the final bill that Trump signed.
The Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference: House Republicans say they’re done investigating, but a bipartisan Senate panel tasked with looking at the issue and any Trump campaign connection is still going a year and a half into Trump’s administration.
Rebuke level: A 3 out of 5. It’s notable that the Senate committee’s GOP leaders have refused to come out and say what Trump desperately wants them to say: that there was no collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Also, Brookings analyst Reynolds gives this committee credit for staying out of the partisan bickering that defined the House investigation. But this is hard to rank until we know what the committee’s investigation finds and how that lines up with the special counsel investigation.
Trump’s border wall: Trump wants Congress to give him $25 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Congress hasn’t given it to him.
Rebuke level: A 4 out of 5. This is one of Trump’s marquee campaign promises, something he wants so badly that he threatened to shut down the government this fall, weeks before voters picked a new Congress. So far Congress hasn’t handed over the money.
Trump’s judiciary and political nominees: A striking number of Trump’s picks for judges and heads of agencies have crashed and burned in the Senate, Cornell’s Chafetz said. Most notable was Trump’s pick to head the Veterans Affairs Department, Ronny L. Jackson, whom the Senate essentially forced to resign. In July, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in effect tanked a controversial appeals court nominee, Ryan Bounds, when Scott said he wouldn’t vote for him. Scott did the same in November for district court nominee Thomas Farr.
Rebuke level: A 4 out of 5. One of the Senate’s main jobs with respect to the White House is to advise and consent on a president’s picks to lead the courts and government. So when it rebels, it’s notable.
Trump’s hesitancy to sanction Russia: One of Congress’s biggest showdowns with Trump happened a few months into his presidency. Over his objections, Congress forced Trump to sign into law sanctions against North Korea, Iran and Russia. It’s the clearest sign yet that Republicans in Congress don’t trust their own president to get tough on Russia and other geopolitical antagonists, I wrote at the time.
Rebuke level: A 5 out of 5. There are few more antagonistic things Congress can do to a White House than pass legislation by a veto-proof majority and dare the president to veto it.