Having apparently forgotten what it is they do for a living, or where it is they do it, many Republicans in Congress are aping President Donald Trump’s justification for disclosing highly classified intelligence to Russian officials as a way of explaining their own seeming indifference to his disastrous presidency.
The defense that Trump’s disclosure was technically legal is an unresponsive dodge, a non sequitur. If it were widely understood over the 241 years since the founding that presidents were expected to be unconstrained except by the subset of federal laws that applies to the president, many of the powers vested in the Congress, including impeachment, would not exist.
Here, for instance, are some things Trump could theoretically claim as his “absolute right.”
1. Bombing Mexico.
2. Tweeting out the locations of every covert U.S. operative in the world.
3. Hiring a hitman to murder former FBI Director James Comey, to thwart his congressional testimony, then pardoning the hitman and pardoning himself.
4. Dressing the nuclear football up in a blond wig, dancing with it on the South Lawn, and uploading footage to YouTube.
Members of Congress ought to know that the technical legality of an action taken in office doesn’t make it acceptable. After all, it would be technically legal for Congress to:
1. Impeach and remove presidents on ludicrous pretenses.
2. Simply refuse to ever fund the government.
3. Declare war on Europe.
4. Impose a tax on people who refuse to purchase broccoli.
Norms and political considerations constrain politicians from abusing their powers in a constant and ongoing way; serious politicians understand this at such a deep level that the thought of committing a naked abuse of power never occurs to them.
When Congress shuts down the government, the president uses the bully pulpit and invariably forces Congress to pass appropriations. When presidents do wrong, Congress can issue subpoenas, compel testimony, withhold bills, confirmations, program funding, or impeach. When they choose to do so is entirely within their control, but it is in their control.
It is only barely a stretch to assume the Republicans insisting on the legality of Trump’s disclosure have forgotten all of this, because they spend all day lately pretending they have. When asked whether Trump should face consequences, Senator John McCain responded:
McCain, as a long-serving U.S. senator and a player in the Keating Five scandal, knows damn well what the consequences could be: all the arrows in the congressional quiver. That’s why the key question for Republicans isn’t “What’s your response to the latest Trump outrage?” but “Where will you finally draw the line?”
Update: A previous version of this article implied that Senator Marco Rubio said “it is what it is” in reference to Trump’s disclosure to the Russians, when in fact Rubio was referring to the impact the disclosure might have on the Republican agenda in Congress.