GOP should choose country before party

Op-ed: Will the GOP choose decency over party and stop Trump in his tracks?

A small number of Republican senators soon face a "profile in courage" challenge as President Donald Trump and his clique of advisers run roughshod over the U.S. Constitution, its guarantees and the national interest of the American people.

Through the recent ban on entry to the U.S. by refugees and many Muslims, the undermining of traditional American alliances, the continued insults on the nation's intelligence community (not to mention intelligence), and the effort to intimidate a free press, Mr. Trump and his acolytes are acting as if they have dictatorial power.

If these trends continue, moderate Republican senators, as many as 10, will have to put the country's interests ahead of party and say they cannot support radical, ill-conceived policies of isolationism, environmental degradation and severe cutbacks in domestic programs. Republicans hold a narrow 52-48 edge in the Senate, which must approve cabinet-level nominees, treaties and judicial appointments. No one has to switch parties, but a temporary alliance across party lines would halt the Trump machine in its tracks.

Two steps in particular could lead to a sharp confrontation with President Trump by a solid number of GOP senators — possibly leading to a shift in the balance of power in the Senate against the president.

One is Mr. Trump's continued embrace of Vladimir Putin, a virtual dictator who has overseen the first aggression in Europe since the end of World War II, and the president's refusal to accept conclusive proof of Russian interference in our election.

The second, equally grave move by Mr. Trump was to remove the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the key national security-focused Principals Committee, and add his ideological minder, Steve Bannon. That change in the National Security Council was sharply criticized by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, as a "radical departure" and by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as "a big mistake."

Many GOP senators are — in varying degrees — embarrassed, irritated, outraged or even disgusted by a number of Trump steps. A few condemned Mr. Trump during the campaign, including Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Others sharply criticized him for his hateful rhetoric, sexual bravado and irresponsible positions on important issues such as nuclear proliferation and climate change.

The two most critical senators are the most respected members on national security: Senator McCain, who has labeled Mr. Putin a "butcher," a "murderer" and a "thug," and Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina. Both are angry at Mr. Trump's dalliance with Mr. Putin and calling the NATO alliance obsolete.

There are any number of critical issues and opportunities in days ahead for these senators to confront Mr. Trump. And they could be joined by other independent voices — Rand Paul of Kentucky, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida — to set Mr. Trump and his cohort back on their heels.

A shot across the bow of the White House is badly needed — and soon. The most likely prospect of a tough note to Mr. Trump from his own party is the strong possibility that his nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, will be rejected. Both Senators Collins and Murkowski have announced their opposition to her nomination; only one more GOP vote would sink it.

Another showdown could come on the confirmation vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general — an ever more critical position in light of the hastily-conceived ban on Muslims and the firing of the acting attorney general. This week's arbitrary suspension of rules by the Judiciary Committee's Republican chairman to advance Trump nominations is a worrisome sign of an anti-democratic trend.

A clash could occur during review of the Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, or on a vital appropriation measure. One target could be the budget for the National Security Council, whose director, Michael Flynn, has been a key figure in the Trump administration's cozy ties with Putin's Russia.

John F. Kennedy wrote a memorable book about senators in American history who stood up for their beliefs and conscience — against the tide of opinion in their party or their state. He depicted actions by Republicans and Democrats, from John Quincy Adams to Robert Taft, who "were elected because [voters] had confidence in our judgment to determine the best interests of the nation." The title was "Profiles in Courage."

A new chapter to this volume, perhaps an entirely expanded edition, needs to be written. Today's Republicans and Democrats need to come together to stand up for American values, including the independence of our legal system, and the basic tenets of a bipartisan foreign policy that has underpinned the world order ever since World War II.

Frederic B. Hill, a former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, later conducted war gaming exercises and conferences on national security issues for the Department of State; his email is fhill207@gmail.com. James E. Goodby (jpgoodby@gmail.com) was vice chair of the United States delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and ambassador to Finland. He is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

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