If Donald Trump turns out to be an autocratic president, running the country with pen and phone regardless of the Constitution, Congress and the courts will step in to stop him. That’s the latest and perhaps most flummoxing rationale Republicans are offering these days as the party seeks to justify its support for its nominee.
Even after endorsing Trump, many Republicans are finding themselves constantly forced to distance themselves from Trump’s inflammatory statements. Saying they disagree is beginning to sound hollow so Republicans have taken another tack. They promise that the courts and Congress will safeguard the United States from Trump’s authoritarian whims.
If the New York businessman begins carrying out an agenda from the White House that looks anything like the one he’s proposed on the campaign trail– like a ban on Muslims –Republicans promise the Constitution guarantees there will be a check and a balance.
“I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told the New York Times last week in a piece highlighting how legal scholars are growing increasingly worried about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. “We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.”
In May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a similar proclamation when he was asked in an interview whether he had concerns about the divisiveness Trump’s message evoked even from within the Republican Party.
“What protects us in this country against big mistakes being made is the structure, the Constitution, the institutions,” McConnell told CBS News last month. “No matter how unusual a personality may be who gets elected to office, there are constraints in this country. You don’t get to do anything you want to.”
Republican strategist John Feehery (who believes Trump won’t be that bad) argued in a blog post that if thing got really bad, Trump could always be impeached.
“I am not of the opinion that the Republic would fail if the voters select somebody like Trump and if Trump turns out to be half as bad as some conservative pundits would have you believe, there are plenty of legal mechanisms to either contain his worse impulses (the Congress and the Supreme Court, for example) or remove him from office should his transgressions become too toxic,” Feehery wrote.
It’s a revealing sentiment that Republicans are already talking about the constitutional constraints for Trump at a time when they usually would be rallying around the nominee. Trump already seems to disregard institutions. He spent the last week drawing attention to the “Mexican” heritage of a judge involved in the Trump University case who had unsealed some documents Trump would have rather kept hidden.
If Republicans feel so confident they can stop Trump if he ignores the Constitution, it raises the question of why they support a potentially dangerous President at all.
“One might think that if you are suggesting that the country is strong enough to constrain a potentially authoritarian leader, it might be a good idea not to elect that potentially authoritarian leader in the first place,” Michael Cohen, author of American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division (Pivotal Moments in American History) wrote it in the Boston Globe over the weekend.
“The idea that you can constrain the president from expanding presidential power or misusing his authority … is crazy,” Cohen told TPM.
Republicans have turned their eyes from Trump’s suggestion that he would look into Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos after the Post began investigating his past, from his stated desire to bring back torture “to beat the savages” (something he had to backtrack on), and from his promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants in the first years of his presidency (something Republicans don’t reject as much as they say it is impossible to implement.)
The reality is Congress and the courts may have very limited ability to stop Trump from executing some of his most controversial policies. Experts say a ban on Muslims could be done through executive order and a court challenge would take years to litigate. Michael DiNiscia, the associate director for New York University’s Brademas Center for the Study of Congress, points out just how unlikely it is that a Republican Party would curtail its own president.
“This Republican Congress, which should be relatively effective, cannot get their act together to challenge the current occupant of the White House who they claim has been this imperial President,” DiNiscia said. “What makes anyone think they will do anything whatsoever to constrain a president from their own party?”
Dov Zakheim, a Republican national security advisor who has worked for GOP heavyweights like Ronald Reagan and Mitt Romney, warns that on the foreign policy front there is plenty an authoritarian Trump could do to endanger the U.S. Trump has promised to “blow the shit” out of ISIS something that Congress doesn’t always weigh in on.
“When was the last time Congress voted go to war? When was the last time Congress voted to support an authorization to use military force?” Zakheim asked. “There are plenty of ways he could undermine the NATO alliance without ever touching Congress.”
In Republicans’ assurances that they will constrain an authoritarian President Trump are echoes of the GOP establishment’s vaunted plans to block Trump from the GOP nomination in the first place. And we know how that worked out.