At the pivotal moment in Otto Preminger’s 1962 film Advise and Consent, a young senator who chairs the subcommittee overseeing the nomination of a new secretary of state tells the president he needs to pick a different nominee.
“Mr. President, I don’t want to wreck [his] life. I don’t want to deprive you of his services in some other office,” the senator says of the nominee, who had lied about his political ties. “But in this case, his confirmation as secretary of state, I am bound by my duty to my committee.”
“You also owe a duty to your party,” the president tells him.
To which the senator replies, “I can’t subvert the purpose of a Senate committee!”
It’s typically dramatic for political theater of the time, but it also reflects some enduring truths of American governance. The president can flatter and cajole and pressure, but he can’t force the senator to act on his nominee. What a young senator lacks in seniority and party standing, he has in constitutional authority: He exists independently of the executive branch, with his own set of powers and privileges.
Set that scene today and it would look a little different. Our politics are far more ideological and polarized. Faced with presidential pressure—and aware of a watchful base—a young senator might bend despite his principles and obligations. But he would still have his constitutional authority. He could still hold the president accountable.
Republican senators could take a lesson from the fictional young senator’s courage. In the wake of President Trump’s angry outburst against key allies over the weekend, including Canada, several expressed dismay and defiance. “Fellow Republicans, this is not who we are. This cannot be our party,” said Jeff Flake of Arizona on Twitter. His senior colleague, John McCain, voiced a similar view, telling our allies that “Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.” As did Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who said, “Canada remains our close ally, good friend, & one of America’s biggest trading partners.” Earlier in the week, Bob Corker of Tennessee challenged Trump on trade, pushing back on White House criticism. “I am a United States senator, and I have responsibilities and I’m going to continue to carry them out,” Corker said.
Those messages were all on brand: Flake has cultivated the persona of a conscientious conservative; McCain, a self-styled “maverick”; Corker, a serious legislator; and Collins, a fair-minded moderate.
They each make clear that Trump offends their sensibilities. “Republicans should not be okay with [Donald Trump] threatening to jail his opponent after the election. That is not who we are,” tweeted Flake in October of 2016, before the election. “Politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to,” he said in a speech last summer, criticizing Trump and his allies. “I will not be complicit.”
But Flake and his colleague have been complicit. A United States senator can do much more than call press conferences and attract cameras. They have leverage. If Flake believes Trump is violating a critical norm—if he thinks that the president needs more meaningful oversight—then he has ways to force the issue. He and his colleagues can block a nominee or threaten to scuttle legislation using the filibuster. If they fear that Trump may fire Robert Mueller and end the FBI investigation into his campaign, they can freeze the Senate’s business and force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into allowing a vote on Mueller-protection legislation.
Instead of taking concrete action to hold Trump accountable, however, they’ve been satisfied to criticize him while confirming his nominees and advancing his legislative agenda, such that it exists. For all their dismay and condemnation, neither Flake nor his like-minded colleagues have tried to connect their work to their rhetoric. They’re posturing against Trump while doing little to actually stop him.
There’s nothing to stop Jeff Flake or Bob Corker or Susan Collins from standing up against the president. Indeed, both Flake and Corker will retire at the end of the year—they have nothing to lose. And while they are substantively conservative—and likely approve of the judges and policies that have happened under the president’s watch—they’ve also framed Trump as uniquely transgressive. Either Trump is a threat to the country that demands action, even if it costs conservative victories, or he’s not. If he is, all they have to do is have the courage of their conviction. All they have to do is put words to action.
Otherwise, this is a charade, meant to garner attention and praise, while doing little—if anything—to challenge the dire threat they claim to oppose.