On the floor of the Senate on Wednesday morning, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set his legendarily methodical mind to work on a new challenge: making Trump’s extraordinary firing of James B. Comey seem normal. Standing behind his mahogany desk, the man who reportedly sought to undermine the intelligence community’s case against Russia as early as last summer kept a straight face as he protested that his true aim now was to prevent something that would “only serve to impede the current work being done” to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia. McConnell went on to argue that senators should accept Comey’s firing, trust the investigation being led by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — a close McConnell ally — and stop being so dramatic.
The speech garnered few headlines, and as the sonic boom of the Comey firing continues to resonate, it’s easy to dismiss McConnell’s mission of normalizing it as an impossible task. That’s wishful thinking. It will take a long time and a lot of endurance, but through a steady slog of unrelenting business as usual, McConnell and his army of obedient congressional Republicans will turn Trump’s lurch toward authoritarianism into the new normal — unless Democrats stop them.
Senate Democrats have been strong in decrying the Comey firing. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivered a powerful rebuttal to McConnell’s speech on the floor Wednesday. But as they move forward, Democrats should consider crafting a long-term strategy that denies McConnell the ability to slowly but steadily apply the cooling balm of normalcy. In short, Democrats’ strategy should recognize that in the wake of the Comey firing, conducting business as usual is no longer a neutral act — it is an act of normalizing Trump’s assault on our democracy.
One of the lessons of McConnell’s career is that if you stake out your position — no matter how extreme — and stick to it, you can eventually force it to be accepted into the natural order of things. Under President Barack Obama, McConnell abused the filibuster to a degree never before seen and led Republicans in making the unprecedented declaration that they would not consider any Supreme Court nominee put forward by Obama on the flimsy, manufactured premise that it was an election year. Waves of criticism followed, but McConnell held firm and kept nervous Senate Republicans in line. Now Justice Neil M. Gorsuch sits in the seat that rightfully belonged to Merrick Garland.
McConnell’s key insight is that the simple passage of time and the conduct of business as usual combine to stretch a cloak of normalcy over even the most extreme event. It’s a smart strategy that plays to the natural human desire to seek normalcy in the face of uncertainty, an impulse the psychologist Arie Kruglanski described as seeking “cognitive closure.”
Democrats need to resist that impulse. The first thing they should do is refuse to conduct business as usual in the Senate. Senate rules make it easy for individual senators to slow things down, and Democrats have already begun to use them. On Wednesday, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) withheld consent from a motion to set up committee hearings, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) forced a delay in a committee hearing. Even in the minority, Democrats are able to do this because everything the Senate does happens by unanimous consent. By withholding consent, any individual senator can force the Senate to grind its gears running through time-consuming procedural hurdles. The challenge will be to repeat these acts again and again over a sustained period of time, because repeated enough, the act of withholding consent can make even the Senate far more unmanageable than it already is.
Democrats should also use the Senate’s rules encouraging free and open debate to take advantage of every opportunity to press Republicans directly and publicly on why they continue to cover for President Trump instead of holding him accountable. Senators can and should flood the floor with speeches and hold frequent news conferences on Trump’s ties to Russia. But they can also engage Republicans directly on the Senate floor and force them to publicly defend their blind obedience to the most conflicted and compromised president in recent history.
For instance, McConnell delivers opening remarks every day during “leader time,” when the Senate convenes every morning. The rules allow one senator to ask any other senator who is speaking on the floor to “yield for a question.” Democrats can make a point of asking McConnell to yield for a question about why, for instance, he is still trying to cast doubt on the intelligence community by stating that Russia “may have” hacked our election in his speech Wednesday — when the entire U.S. intelligence community concluded in January that Russia was the perpetrator.
Democrats can repeat this tactic every time a Republican senator is speaking on the floor. Engaging fellow senators in debate and asking them to defend their positions in public would also revive the Senate’s tradition of being free, open and extemporaneous debate, instead of the place it has devolved into in recent decades where senators mindlessly read speeches written by their staff to an empty chamber. Republicans can dodge reporters in the halls of the Capitol or refuse to hold town halls back home, but it is far more difficult for them to dodge their fellow senators on the floor. And if they refuse to yield for questions, they will demonstrate that they are unable to publicly defend their position. In an environment where polls show the public yearning for Congress to act as a check on Trump, the American people will get to judge whether Republicans are fulfilling that role for themselves, with the unblinking eye of C-SPAN recording it all in real time.
I served as an aide to then-senator Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) during the Garland nomination, and one of the challenges during that debate was keeping it in the news. After the announcement was made and Republicans fell in line, there was not much news for the media to chase, and the story fell off the front pages. The Russia story is much different. The drip, drip, drip followed by the occasional flood of news on Russia is not going to stop. Every few days or weeks, there will be new stories, prompting Republicans to have to explain why they are, yet again, covering for Trump.
But Democrats have to take that news and weaponize it to hold Republicans accountable. They have to be active every day — or else McConnell’s steady march of business as usual will wash over even something as extraordinary as the Comey firing like several tons of liquid asphalt.
In the week after the election, Reid was deeply disturbed by the wave of hate crimes being committed in Trump’s name. He decided to give a speech on the floor decrying those crimes and calling on Trump to take action to stop them. In that speech, he said, “If we fail to hold Trump accountable, we all bear a measure of responsibility for normalizing his behavior.”
Those words hold true today. Holding Trump accountable now requires a thousand small acts of refusing to conduct business as usual and holding those covering for Trump accountable. It requires a daily grind of resisting the steady march of normalization.
But the American people are counting on their leaders to do exactly that: resist.