Last week in Helsinki with the whole world watching, President Donald Trump enthusiastically renounced any last semblance of presidential demeanor he possessed, yielding to one of America’s greatest foes with seeming indifference. Beside adversarial strongman and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump issued a stunning rebuke of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and an emphatic denial of Putin’s chicanery in the same breath, an act appropriately chastised as the most embarrassing presidential performance in recent memory (even after his post-summit statement that supposedly “clarifies things pretty good”).
In absolving himself of the president’s paternal obligation to stand firmly against national enemies, Trump went one step too far, even in a presidency where misrule is the norm. It is not just that Russia’s interests often run afoul of our own – its regime routinely violates the human rights of journalists and other political dissidents, is engaged in a lengthy and brutal proxy war with the United States, illegally annexed sovereign Ukrainian territory in an affront to post-Cold War rules and order, and more than anything maliciously interfered in the most sacred of American political institutions.
Other than the obvious conclusion that Putin returned from Helsinki emboldened to embark on his next sinister pursuit, the Trump-Putin summit made clear there are only three possible explanations for the chief executive’s stunt.
First, Trump is irretrievably ignorant of the intricacies of foreign affairs and is equally impervious to the attempts of those around him to roll back his personalist approach to world leaders. Second, Trump has been personally compromised by Putin (surely a long shot, between the honest authoritarian and the sexually wholesome frequenter of Russia), and will not hesitate to protect himself at the expense of the United States. Third, Trump is even more selfish and psychologically fragile than previously imagined, and desires more than anything to indulge his ego in his 2016 presidential election victory – even if feeding the narrative that his Herculean feat was unassisted comes at the cost of elevating a dictator’s word above that of U.S. intelligence officials. Or some combination of them.
Accepting any of the explanations for Trump’s behavior only demands the belief that Trump’s well-documented narcissism is so overcoming as to blind him to the best interests of the country he governs – not a stretch by most standards. For a figure as poorly versed in public service and foreign policy as Trump, the shameful display in Helsinki may alternately be explained by the president’s inadequacy with regard to executive statesmanship as much as it is by his lack of commitment to the public.
Regardless of the explanation, Trump’s uniquely deleterious statements made unequivocally obvious his woeful inability to perform the basic duties of a world leader. Therefore, Congress should objectively have no qualms in considering impeachment; a sparingly used tool that, according to constitutional architect George Mason, was afforded to Congress as a “mode of displacing an unfit magistrate.” America’s ability to remove an unfaithful and/or severely incapable executive in the direst of circumstances remains, however, intertwined with the politics of the lawmakers to which it is entrusted.
It is unsurprising, then, that even after the summit fiasco, the Republican-dominated House and Senate have so far distanced themselves from anything close to calls for Trump’s removal. This congressional inaction is what one would expect, of course, in a country further removed from apolitical unity than ever, perhaps. For Trump’s hegemonic base, unwavering in its loyalty to figure above ideology or even state, Trump’s blundering betrayal is nothing more than the next hill on which to die in the culture wars, and any serious critics in Washington will be met with fire and fury accordingly.
By polarizing the debate over Trump’s most blatant disregard for national concern yet, his coterie of supporters has ensured any full-throated defense of American sovereignty will be met with substantial outcry, thereby redirecting GOP politicians toward the path of least of resistance. As they have repeatedly made clear, Republican lawmakers have heard the message and will not hold Trump accountable if it means upsetting constituents – even if impeachment (or at least moving toward it) will mitigate future damage to American international standing.
In light of unending congressional deference to Trump’s ignobility, there seems to be little hope for recourse, a prospect even more disconcerting given the momentum of Russia’s continuing campaigns against American domestic security and overseas interests. Just as it is futile to hope that Trump will change his predispositions, it is naïve to call upon Republican members of Congress to sacrifice their own electoral security for some higher cause (perhaps a justification in and of itself for doing away with the two-party system and its many maladies). Republican lawmakers’ predictable and demonstrated preference for political expediency speaks to an era where reminiscing on the days of “bipartisanship” is hokey at best, and deceptive at worst, demanding a Congress capable of pushback.
As Trump’s rhetoric has moved beyond bombastic to outright terrifying, he has proved himself beyond deserving of impeachment and possible removal from office. Deliberation on the true nature of his historic missteps will not become a reality as long as those lawmakers poised to forgo the nonpartisan duties of the legislature remain in power. Accommodation of Trump and his ever-flirtatious dance with outright treason can therefore come to a close only under a Congress headed by the Democrats, necessitating widespread electoral support for blue House and Senate candidates come this fall.
To be clear, this is not a partisan call for a Democratic takeover of Congress predicated on liberal policy toward health care, abortion access, gun control or any other hot-button political issue – it is a straightforward demand for Congress to put its allegiance to America first, and act deliberately when the man elected to the nation’s highest office so clearly fails to do so. No longer answering to Trump’s steadfast base, maybe a new majority of Democratic legislators can, as Mason envisioned, contain our unfit magistrate.