Last week the aisles of Congress were, at least on a couple of critically important matters, anything but the canyons of partisan divide they have been for much — far too much — of the United States’ recent political history.
This time the divide was not between Republicans and Democrats, or even (as is often the case) between House and Senate, but between two branches of the federal government. And one of these matters would, if necessary, invoke the authority of the third.
On Wednesday President Donald Trump, without the now familiar photo-op ceremony that customarily accompanies his bill signings and executive orders, reluctantly affixed his signature to a bill toughening economic sanctions against Russia for interference in the 2016 elections, as well as new sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
Not only had the president made his opposition to the bill clear, but one provision must have been especially galling — a clause preventing him from relaxing sanctions already put in place by the Obama administration.
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“This was a necessary step that we took,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In a written statement calling the legislation “significantly flawed,” Trump concluded with this curious rationale: “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
Congress, clearly and overwhelmingly, did not see our relationship with hostile regimes in the context of presidential “deals”: The sanctions bill passed the House by a vote of 419-3, and the Senate by an equally resounding 98-2.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the sanctions were “long overdue,” and that he hoped the law “would send a strong message to Russia that we can’t have interference in our elections going forward.”
That unambiguous bipartisan statement has now been delivered, signed and sealed (so to speak). Another one — or rather, two — could prove to be at least as significant, politically and otherwise. Together, they constitute an unmistakable shot across the White House bow concerning accountability.
As reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Washington desk, a pair of bills, both with bipartisan sponsorship, have been unveiled that address the possibility of President Trump firing former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel heading the investigation into the Russian election tampering at the heart of the sanctions bill. Mueller, of course, has been under fire from the West Wing and from administration allies, in preemptive strikes against any allegations that might arise in the probe that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives.
Both bills, the AJC reports, call for judicial scrutiny in the event of a presidential order to fire Mueller, and both would empower the judiciary to reinstate him.
“It is critical that special counsels have the independence and resources they need to lead investigations,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. His Democratic co-sponsor, Chris Coons of Delaware, said constitutional due process “depends on a system of checks and balances, grounded in the fundamental premise that no one is above the law.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is principal sponsor of a separate but similar bill, also with Democratic co-sponsorship, said, “Special counsels must act within boundaries, but they must also be protected.”
American political debates have in recent years become increasingly bitter and ugly. In the public arena, they seem to be more about protecting constituencies, money and power bases than any dedication to the common welfare or the national interest. At the private level, they’re about stubbornly standing whatever ideological ground we had already staked out, and never budging no matter what inconvenient realities might threaten to intrude on our dubiously founded certitude.
In such an atmosphere, Americans have reasonable cause to wonder if anything in government is still considered more important than “winning.” Congress has, at last and for the moment, made an unambiguous declaration that there is.