Profiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers

Profiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers
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Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Tenn.), Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Key Senate Republican praises infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ohio) and Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseWhite House cyber chief backs new federal bureau to track threats Sasse calls China's Xi a 'coward' after Apple Daily arrest Defunct newspaper's senior editor arrested in Hong Kong MORE (R-Neb.) are respected Republican Senators with notable achievements. They have experience and accomplishments outside the Senate. They have gravitas. They also are Trump enablers, which — when history is written — may overshadow some of these other works.

Several years ago, at a Seattle dinner, William Ruckelshaus, the former Deputy Attorney General and FBI director, discussing Trump's transgressions, noted that in these matters there's usually a lot beyond what is known. I suspect much of that will surface eventually — and that reckoning will embarrass those who should have known better.

My definition of “enablers” in this instance has almost nothing to do with policy. These lawmakers voted for the tax cuts, Supreme Court justices and repeal of Obamacare out of conviction. Those are legitimate policy debates.

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However, they also largely refused to condemn Trump's habitual lying, coddling of dictators overseas and criminals at home, disdain for the rule of law … you know the list: It’s is both long and sadly familiar.

Politically, it was easier for these men to just go along.

I'm not surprised at evangelical leaders kowtowing to a president whose values are antithetical to what they preach. It's about access and money.

I'm not surprised at “players” — like ardent apologists Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade MORE (R-Texas), whose father Trump charged was complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate MORE (R-S.C.), who took a dive as Trump repeatedly savaged his mentor and once closest colleague, the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE. Both are engaged in fantasies about 2024 while mouthing support for Trump's efforts to overturn the November election results.

I am surprised by the other three, who knew better but were weak.

Alexander was a highly respected two-term governor, president of the University of Tennessee, and Secretary of Education. His one failure was running for president in 1996 on a platform to create a citizen Congress — "cut their pay and send them home." He is finishing his 18th year in the Senate, and the pay is $19,000 more than when he arrived.

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He has engaged with constructive legislation these past few years, but his most shameful moment came during impeachment — not his opposition while acknowledging Trump had acted inappropriately, but violating all precedent and not calling any witnesses: "If you've got eight witnesses saying that you left the scene of an accident, you don't need nine." Except some of those witnesses, like John BoltonJohn BoltonWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Will Pence primary Trump — and win? Bolton: Trump lacked enough 'advance thinking' for a coup MORE, were part of the accident.

Associates attribute Alexander’s failures to speak out against Trump to loyalty — not to Trump, but to his longtime friend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal On The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns MORE (R-Ky.).

To put one’s principles on hold for Mitch McConnell may be worse.

Portman was a much-admired House member and U.S. Trade Ambassador and director of the Office of Management and Budget for President George W. Bush before winning his Senate seat in 2010. He has rarely spoken out against Trump and has gone along with appointments he must have known were unacceptable, like approving a political partisan, John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeUFOs are an intriguing science problem; Congress must act accordingly How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE, for the sensitive post of director of National Intelligence.

Disappointed friends say Portman insists he has gotten things done (it's not a memorable list) and is reflecting his state's strong support for Trump. By that logic, Richard Nixon would have been golden; 49 states supported him for reelection before Watergate.

Sasse is a young former university president with a doctorate in history and refreshingly articulate, which the media relishes. During a constituent call last month, he expressed horror at the manner in which Trump “kisses dictator's butts, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor and mocks evangelicals” behind closed doors: “His family treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He's flirted with white supremacists,” Sasse said.

This all was evident well before last month.

While Sasse has been critical of Trump before now, it’s been strategic — and muted. He willingly accepted Trump's embrace for his Nebraska reelection last year, helping fend off any serious right-wing challenger. When it was safe, Sasse found the political courage to speak frankly.

An important guardrail against a dangerous demagogue in our system is his political party; that's what ultimately did in Joe McCarthy. But with few exceptions — like Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE (R-Utah) or the former Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE and a few governors — most Republican office holders have been complicit… cagey at best.

Thus, Trump’s disdain for decency and truth will persist.

That’s the damage.

Last week, the two Georgia Republican Senators, David PerdueDavid PerdueLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Georgia Republican secretary of state hits Loeffler as 'weak,' 'fake Trumper' MORE and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerHarris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up Trump says Herschel Walker will enter Georgia Senate race MORE — both forced into run-off elections because of close results, demanded the state's Republican Secretary of State resign for mismanaging the election and not going after voting “fraud.” They must surely know better — but in the era of Trump, it works.

And most don't seem to pay any price.

Next month as he retires, there will be tributes written to Alexander lamenting the loss to the institution. If he runs for reelection, Portman will coast in red Ohio. Sasse will continue to be a darling for the Washington think tanks and journalists searching for that “thoughtful” conservative.

But someday — years from now — a descendant will ask, "What did Grandpa do about Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic MORE?"

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.