What a Week This Was!

by John Lawrence

Syria. Gorsuch. Filibuster. Job report. Nunes. China visit. Russia. Health Care. Bannon and NSC. Kushner diplomat extraordinaire. Unquestionably, the first week in April has been the most consequential for the still struggling Trump Administration. The thrashing about is occurring not only within the troubled White House itself, riven with rivalries, but between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue which continue to cautiously define their relationship.

Trump’s decision on Thursday night to launch a missile attack on Syria’s Al Shayrat airfield was the President’s first effort to demonstrate his willingness to flex American military muscle and was significant in a number of ways. The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that constituted Trump’s response to President Assad’s despicable chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun elevated his profile by demonstrating he was willing to shoot off something other than his mouth in response to Syrian (and Russian) provocation. Whether the attack reflects a new policy towards the Syrian civil war, or was merely a one-off retribution strike for Assad’s slaughter of innocents, remains to be seen.

Less uncertain are the impacts in terms of relationships with both Russia and Capitol Hill. Apparently the Russians were informed prior to the missile launchings which allowed them to move their military personnel at Al Shayrat out of harm’s way, although it seems unlikely the early alert will assuage Putin for the assault on Assad, his Syrian ally. One question still to be answered is whether congressional leaders were also given advance notice of the missile attack. Without any knowledge on the subject, I would bet calls went out to the Big Five (Speaker, Majority and Minority Leaders in both the Senate and House), as was the case before President Obama launched the attacks in Libya in 2011, which is one reason why there was a muted response from potential congressional critics.

But it did not take long for Sen. Rand Paul and others to question why the President did not seek congressional approval prior to initiating a major offensive military action, especially since Trump had criticized Obama for not seeking specific authorization before intervening in North Africa. Now ensconced in the West Wing, Trump instead fell back on Obama’s rationale, that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress approved long ago concerning Afghanistan and Iraq essentially permits presidentially approved offensive military action anywhere in a very wide region that was not contemplated when the AUMF was passed.

Congress approved the War Powers Resolution in 1973 on a bipartisan basis to check the ability of trigger-happy presidents to insinuate the United States into protracted international conflicts without the requisite approval from Congress, which was granted war-making authority by the Constitution. Previously, White Houses of both parties have shot first and alerted Congress later, when it was necessary to seek funds to perpetuate the conflict initiated on a unilateral basis. Unwilling to leave American forces in harm’s way without needed weaponry or pay, compliant Congresses regularly get snookered into ratifying the President’s decision even when they disapproved of the initial commitment of U.S. forces. Frequently, for example, Nancy Pelosi had to cajole her distrustful Democrats to fund George W. Bush’s Iraq war, which she detested, provoking unrelenting criticism from militant demonstrators outside her San Francisco home.

Closer to home, tensions within the White House continued as personnel drama played out at the highest levels. Of greatest interest are reports that the two most powerful Trump aides, Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon, are at loggerheads. Kushner’s secret trip to Iraq, coming on the heels of his elevated role in coordinating government reform, negotiating a Mid-East Peace Agreement, and who knows what else, all are raising eyebrows in Congress and among ethics experts who note the acrid whiff of nepotism drifting through the White House. Many are justifiably alarmed at the power vested in a wholly inexperienced and unvetted neophyte who has never revealed potential conflicts of interest or been the subject of congressional confirmation. There is a reason that individuals who have the weighty portfolio being thrust upon Kushner must first be subjected to careful and public scrutiny, and one would think that Trump would want the same for his son-in-law if, for no other reason, than to diminish the possibility of a huge embarrassment at some crucial time in the future. (Of course, Bannon and National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster also hold their positions without benefit of congressional approval.)

A third development, with potentially significant long-term consequences, was the decision of Senate Republicans to alter the historic rule requiring 60 votes to take up a Supreme Court nominee, and the subsequent confirmation of Neil Gorsuch with just 54 votes, including two Democrats. Republicans pointed to former Majority Harry Reid’s decision to employ the nuclear option and eliminate the filibuster in 2013, a decision that applied to Cabinet and lower judicial nominees, but not to the Supreme Court or to legislative matters. Reid had long voiced his exasperation during leadership meetings with President Obama over his inability to confirm not only judicial nominees but also lower level Cabinet positions going back to the Clinton Administration because Minority Leader Mitch McConnell employed the 60 vote rule, often for reasons wholly unrelated to the qualifications or ideology of the prospective appointee. (In one case, at least, a senator held up a nomination for many months because he had not received a timely response to a letter to a Cabinet member.)

During those meetings (which I often attended), McConnell was a picture of taciturn indifference to Reid’s fulminations, resting on Senate tradition to justify use of the filibuster. Not surprisingly, upon gaining the majority in 2015, McConnell was happy to keep the Reid rule in place (as did Democrats in 1891 when they preserved the reforms that GOP Speaker Thomas Reed had unilaterally implemented to facilitate the operations of the House). There is a difference, of course: McConnell was holding up hundreds of appointments for reasons unrelated to the nominee, whereas Senate Democrats were objecting to one person’s appointment, based on Gorsuch’s extreme originalism and the Republican majority’s unprecedented refusal to grant Obama nominee Merrick Garland a hearing, let alone a vote. No matter, once a rule is violated, it is very difficult to restore it, and the Senate Democrats could hardly have been surprised. The resulting fury is more likely to affect the few Democrats who voted for GOP rules changes and Gorsuch, even though their votes in each case had no impact on the outcome.

One can hardly conclude a review of the week’s news without mentioning the spectacular flare-out of the bumbling, ham-fisted disaster that is Devin Nunes. His willingness to prostrate himself before the White House on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election was embarrassing to Democrats and Republicans alike, and his sharing of classified information about the probe with the President – information Trump could easily have acquired without the clandestine, midnight maneuvers of Nunes – sealed his fate as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Not only did he humiliate his fellow Republicans and provide Democrats with a new poster child of obsequiousness to Trump, but he crossed a line in kow-towing to the Executive Branch, a violation of separation of powers that was bound to cause anxiety among anyone concerned about the integrity and independence of the Legislative Branch.

A week of enormous consequence and continued turbulence on the Hill, in the White, and between the branches. And there is little reason to believe things will calm down anytime soon.

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