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Profiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers

Profiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers
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Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Tenn.), Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP GOP in bind over Trump as corporate donations freeze MORE (R-Ohio) and Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseSasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Democratic super PAC targets Hawley, Cruz in new ad blitz Hotel cancels Hawley fundraiser after Capitol riot: 'We are horrified' 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 CruzNewly released video from inside Capitol siege shows rioters confronting police, rifling through Senate desks Can we protect our country — from our rulers, and ourselves? Democratic super PAC targets Hawley, Cruz in new ad blitz MORE (R-Texas), whose father Trump charged was complicit in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP An attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation MORE (R-S.C.), who took a dive as Trump repeatedly savaged his mentor and once closest colleague, the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe best way to handle veterans, active-duty military that participated in Capitol riot Cindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake 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 BoltonNSA places former GOP political operative in top lawyer position after Pentagon chief's reported order After insurrection: The national security implications McConnell won't reprise role as chief Trump defender 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 McConnellGraham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Rove: Chances of conviction rise if Giuliani represents Trump in Senate impeachment trial Boebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report 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 RatcliffeHouse panels open review of Capitol riot Edward Snowden, the media, and the Espionage Act Overnight Defense: Top US general meets with Taliban | House panel launches probe into cyberattack | Army to issue face masks for soldiers in 2021 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 RomneyImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history MORE (R-Utah) or the former Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Arizona county's Republican committee debates censuring Cindy McCain 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 PerdueNikki Haley unveils PAC ahead of possible 2024 White House bid McConnell has said he thinks Trump committed impeachable offenses: report Trump's legacy is discord and division MORE and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerNikki Haley unveils PAC ahead of possible 2024 White House bid McConnell has said he thinks Trump committed impeachable offenses: report Top Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win 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 TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT 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.