The news is being reported on split screen as if the one big story in Washington is disconnected from the other. But President Donald Trump’s lawless threats against Attorney General Jeff Sessions have a lot in common with the Senate’s reckless approach to the health coverage of tens of millions of Americans.
On both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, we are witnessing a collapse of the norms of governing, constant violations of our legitimate expectations of political leaders, and the mutation of the normal conflicts of democracy into a form of warfare that demands the opposition’s unconditional surrender.
Trump’s latest perverse miracle is that he has progressives – along with everyone else who cares about the rule of law – rooting for Sessions. The attorney general is as wrong as ever on voter suppression, civil rights enforcement and immigration. But Sessions did one very important thing: He obeyed the law.
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When it was clear that he would have obvious conflicts of interest in the investigation of Russian meddling in our election and its possible links to the Trump campaign, Sessions recused himself, as he was required to do.
Trump’s attacks on Sessions for that recusal are thus a naked admission that he wants the nation’s top lawyer to act illegally if that’s what it takes to protect the president and his family. Equally inappropriate are his diktats from the Oval Office calling on Sessions to investigate Hillary Clinton and those terrible “leakers” who are more properly seen as whistleblowers against Trump’s abuses.
Our country is now as close to crossing the line from democracy to autocracy as it has been in our lifetimes. Trump’s ignorant, self-involved contempt for his duty under Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” ought to inspire patriots of every ideological disposition to a robust and fearless defiance.
But where are the leaders of the Republican Party in the face of the dangers Trump poses? They’re trying to sneak through a health care bill by violating every reasonable standard citizens should impose on public servants dealing with legislation that affects more than one-sixth of our economy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have little time for worrying about the Constitution because they are busy doing Trump’s bidding on health care.
Let it be said that two Republican senators will forever deserve our gratitude for insisting that a complicated health care law should be approached the way Obamacare – yes, Obamacare – was enacted: through lengthy hearings, robust debate and real input from the opposition party. In voting upfront to try to stop the process, Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski demonstrated a moral and political toughness that eluded other GOP colleagues who had expressed doubts about this charade but fell into line behind their leaders.
The most insidious aspect of McConnell’s strategy is that he is shooting to pass something, anything, that would continue to save Republicans from having a transparent give-and-take on measures that could ultimately strip health insurance from 20 million Americans ormore. Passing even the most meager of health bills this week would move the covert coverage-demolition effort to a conference committee with the House.
The Senate’s unseemly marathon thus seems likely to end with a push for a “skinny repeal” bill that would eliminate the Affordable Care Act’s individual and employer mandates and its medical device tax. But no one should be deluded: A vote for skinny repeal is a vote for an emaciated democracy.
A wholesale defeat for what might be described as the Trump-McConnell-Ryan Unhealthy America Act of 2017 is essential for those being served by the ACA but also for our politics. It was disappointing that Sen. John McCain’s passionate plea on Tuesday for a “return to regular order” did not match his votes in this week’s early roll calls.
But McCain could yet advance the vision of the Senate he outlined in his floor speech and rebuke “the bombastic loudmouths” he condemned by casting a “No” vote at the crucial moment. Here’s hoping this war hero will ultimately choose to strike a blow against everything he said is wrong with Congress.
And when it comes to the ongoing indifference to the law in the White House, Republicans can no longer dodge their responsibility to speak out against what Trump is doing. They should also examine their own behavior. The decline of our small-r republican institutions can be stopped only if the party brandishing that adjective starts living up to the obligations its name honors.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.