The GOP rolls over for Trump on Iran
Could hostilities with Iran be revealing small cracks in the seemingly solid line of Republican support for President Trump? On Wednesday, Senator Mike Lee angrily described the Trump administration's classified briefing on the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani as "insulting and demeaning" and "probably the worst" he's attended on any military matter in his career. Lee, with Senator Rand Paul standing beside him in agreement, blasted the Trump team for being unable to name any potential scenario in which administration officials would seek Congressional authorization for future military actions against Iran and for insinuating that anyone who debated or questioned the appropriateness of any further engagements would only be "emboldening Iran." "It's un-American, it's un-Constitutional, and it's wrong," Lee said of the administration's position.
Lee is right. And his willingness to continue speaking out about the meeting, including on Fox News, provides welcome words of caution and restraint as tensions escalate with Iran.
Yet even more than that, Lee's resistance serves to starkly highlight how completely the rest of the GOP has rolled over for Trump. At this point in the Trump presidency, there's no surprise in how thoroughly congressional Republicans have become useless yes-men and women to the president. Still, it's worth pointing out the particularly terrifying implications of the GOP's submission to Trump when it involves possible military conflict, given the Iran crisis has once again demonstrated how unfit Trump is for the presidency and how unhinged he is as a decision maker.
It wasn't long ago that many Republicans publicly acknowledged exactly that. In the run up to the 2016 election, GOP Senators like Mark Kirk, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio regularly warned that trusting Trump on national security matters and military action posed real danger. Just months before the election, Rubio called Trump a "lunatic" who couldn't be trusted with the nation's nuclear weapons. Graham described candidate Trump's foreign policy as "gibberish" and something that "scares the hell out of me."
Now Graham and Rubio have become Trump's biggest cheerleaders — not an easy task given how many Republicans clamor to crow for this president, but all the more disturbing considering how recklessly and unlawfully Trump has used military force.
Trump's wild imagination about the nation's nuclear arsenal alone — everything from asking why he couldn't use nuclear weapons to suggesting that nukes could be deployed to breakup oncoming hurricanes — demonstrates how Trump shouldn't be anywhere near the nuclear button. His bellicosity and boastfulness — he reportedly spent several days over the New Year boasting to guests at Mar-a-Lago that he was going to do something "big" about Iran, a courtesy his administration didn't care to extend to the Senate — undermines security and weakens our democratic system. His actions, however, like the Soleimani strike, provide even grimmer evidence of his disregard for both international and American law and his penchant for dangerous escalation.
That's not how Rubio, Graham, and the rest of the GOP groupthinkers see it, of course. Instead, they've spent the last couple of days drumming up hysterical support for the president and attacking the few voices of resistance in their party. Graham, no stranger to dramatic outbursts himself, accused Lee of "overreacting" and of "empowering the enemy" by not falling into lockstep behind the administration, adding to Nikki Haley's outrageous smear that Democrats were "the only ones mourning the loss of Soleimani."
At the same time, Graham has kept up his prolific puffery of the president, claiming Trump's rambling and untruthful address to the nation about Iran on Wednesday was "on par" with Ronald Reagan's historic "Tear Down this Wall" speech, a comment that in normal times any Republican would properly denounce as no less than heresy.
Meanwhile, Trump's unofficial communications team, Fox News, has kept the propaganda mill churning for the president. Wednesday evening, Lou Dobbs dismissed Senator Lee's objections as little more than a "snit fit" before comparing Lee to the Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold. The next morning, Sarah Huckabee Sanders took to Fox & Friends to attack the House resolution restricting Trump's ability to take future military action against Iran. "I can't think of anything dumber than allowing Congress to take over our foreign policy ... The last thing we want to do is push powers into Congress' hands and take them away from the president," Sanders smugly said.
Sanders predictably focused her attack on Democrats, but there are a few Republicans — Senators Lee and Paul, and the three Republicans who joined the vast majority of House Democrats in voting Thursday evening to limit Trump's war-making abilities — who have also shown that, for the moment at least, they care more about upholding the Constitution than mindlessly propping up the president.
Still, Americans who care about the rule of law shouldn't get too excited about Lee and Paul's pushback to the president. Even their current conscience may be crumbling under the weight of forced GOP deference to Trump. On Thursday afternoon, Lee returned to Fox News to walk back his Wednesday tirade, taking pains to distinguish Trump from the administration officials who had led the briefing, saying those officials "didn't share this president's view that has been very respectful to his commander in chief power." "I applaud this president, I support this president," Lee fawningly continued before saying Trump had been "restrained in his use of the commander in chief power more than any other president in my lifetime."
That's the sort of delusional thinking that has emboldened this president's worst inclinations and excused his greatest infractions. Fortunately for now, it seems that public sentiment has warned Trump off of a full-blown war with Iran. Just don't count on Republican resistance to restrain him the next time things heat back up.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.