Republicans are in denial. The GOP’s response to the bombshell revelations regarding the Trump campaign’s inclination to indulge an offer of assistance from a Kremlin intermediary has been a muddled one. Depending on which Republican you ask, this is either a moment to pound the table over Barack Obama’s failed attempt at a “reset” with Russia or to request patience as the sluggish investigations into the Trump campaign trudge along. Conservative and liberal columnists are likely to note that voters in Trump Country don’t care about the investigation into Russian meddling in 2016 and, without that, Republicans in Congress won’t either. These responses miss the point. What is alleged, and what Donald Trump Jr. has not denied, is a serious breach of the public trust. It is incumbent upon Congress to abandon its sheepishness and act forcefully to restore that trust.
First, let’s dispense with the permissive idea that rank-and-file Republicans are just fine with the allegations regarding the Trump campaign’s misconduct vis-à-vis Russia. As a CBS News survey released in late June demonstrated, a plurality of self-described Republican respondents said they believed Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign would be “impartial.” Moreover, 75 percent of Republicans said Trump shouldn’t try to stop Mueller’s probe, and a full 40 percent of self-identified GOP voters think it is likely Trump associates had improper contact with Russian government officials (a 15 percent increase from March). Those Republicans joined 65 percent of the broader public.
When it comes to bilateral relations with Russia, Republicans in Congress have a mandate to reassert their role in the conduct of American foreign policy. Even if voters had faith in the Trump White House’s ability to manage America’s interests with regard to Russia, it would be incumbent upon Congress to act. Fortunately, they have an avenue through which to achieve this pressing objective: a bipartisan bill, which passed the Senate by an astounding 98-2, that imposes new sanctions on Moscow and Tehran.
For lazy or cynical commentators quick to assert that the GOP-led Congress is unfailingly deferential to the Trump White House, that sanctions bill is a narrative-killer. It provides Congress with the sole authority to review any efforts by the administration to implement those sanctions in the manner of its choosing. The Trump administration has reportedly fought to have this provision stripped from the bill.
It is perhaps excusable that the executive branch would seek to protect its authority from an assault by a co-equal branch. It’s equally understandable that diplomatic officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would object to having their hands tied by Congress. These objections are also, however, mooted by the revelations regarding Donald Trump Jr.’s conduct. The extraordinary nature of President Donald Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his refusal to respond directly to the Russian-led assault on American sovereignty in 2016 have forced Congress’ hand. There is no more room for the benefit of the doubt.
There are other legitimate objections to the sanctions bill—namely a “boomerang provision” in the legislation that would bar U.S. oil exploration firms from participating in a project where Russian firms also had access rights. That provision would cost American businesses millions and, ironically, make it easier for Russian energy exploration firms to do business. Amending this provision and clearing the way for passage through the House shouldn’t be difficult. It took just days to resolve a procedural hiccup in the bill, in which House members objected to a revenue-related provision originating in the Senate (a violation of the Constitution’s Origination Clause). And yet, the bill has been stalled in the House for weeks. That inexcusable logjam must be cleared. If Tuesday’s headlines won’t do it, nothing will.
Economic sanctions aren’t the only area in which the U.S. Congress is obliged to hold the Trump administration’s feet to the fire. Whether they like it or not, the Trump administration has been bequeathed an on-the-ground conflict in Syria, and they are prosecuting it. More often than anyone should be comfortable with, that conflict involves direct hostilities with the Syrian armed forces. The legislature should codify the emerging Trump doctrine into a new authorization to use military force against all forces loyal to Damascus. Such an authorization can be broad in scope so as not to put legal obstacles before the president, but it must recognize and sanction the fact that American soldiers are conducting combat operations in Syria against Syrians. This, too, would contain and constrict Russia.
Last week, following a glowing display of chumminess between the Russian president and his American counterpart, Secretary Tillerson announced a new cooperative initiative between Moscow and the U.S. in Syria saying that our mutual “objectives are exactly the same.” This is laughably naïve.
American objectives—the stabilization of Syria and the transition away from the Assad regime—are viewed by the Kremlin as serious threats. So serious, in fact, that when the Assad regime was threatened in 2015 (and, with him, the Russian Mediterranean port in Syria) Moscow responded by striking CIA-provided weapons and U.S. backed anti-Assad forces.
Russia is guilty of committing humanitarian atrocities in Syria, and the appearance of American military cooperation with Moscow in jointly monitored “safe zones” would render Washington complicit in those crimes. Tillerson and Trump appear eager to outsource the work of achieving a suitable peace in Syria to Russia. This is official resignation to unacceptable outcomes. Congress should not allow that to happen without a fight.
None of this is to say that diplomacy or cooperation with Moscow in Europe or the Middle East is not possible or even desirable. Indeed, cooperation between these two great powers is an imperative. But the Founders envisioned a role for Congress when it came to executing American foreign-policy objectives. Posterity will be unforgiving should they fail at their charge.