Mutiny on Capitol Hill? Not an easy question

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Oct. 30, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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A mutiny may be brewing in Congress and especially in the Senate. Sen. Bob Corker is no Fletcher Christian conspiring against Lt. William Bligh, captain of HMS Bounty, or Sen. Jeff Flake a Steve Maryk relieving Philip Queeg, skipper of USS Caine. But make no mistake: Privately, many Republicans in the Senate fear Donald Trump is the most disruptive and destructive president in their political lifetimes.

The impossible question is what to do.

Politics on the Hill resembles a kabuki dance intertwined with the most Byzantine practices since the Borgias. Not too long ago, a friend was someone who stabbed you in the front. Today, long political knives are benign weapons. Instead, what is happening would defy even Machiavelli.

The first clear sign of trouble on the lower decks is Sen. Mitch McConnell's PAC targeting the destruction of Steve Bannon. Bannon is clearly a surrogate for Trump. However, Republicans in Congress face a nearly unresolvable dilemma in coping with a president whose fitness for office has been publicly challenged by Corker and Flake.

Many in the press and the public are pleading with Senate Republicans to become vertebrates again and grow collective spines to stand up to the president. While the simplicity of this critique is appealing, life is not that simple. Republicans are trapped between what are seen as two unacceptable choices.

First, no one wants to be in the minority. Since civility and compromise have been victims of the increasingly poisonous and pernicious nature of politics in which both political parties have veered to left and right extremes and governing has become a zero sum game, willfully forgoing power is not an option. The rot really began with Vietnam and the vicious spiral as government became increasingly delegitimized. Watergate and then 40 years of internecine warfare between Republicans and Democrats have torn our ability to govern asunder.

Second, from the Republican side, the specter of a Democratically controlled Congress with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Nancy Pelosi in charge is completely unacceptable. As dangerous or destructive as Trump may be, this prospect is likely to be worse. So hanging on to power is job one.

Third, and this is where the mutiny might take hold, the fear of being "primaryed" and losing one's seat to a more extreme candidate supported by the Trump/Bannon machine could backfire. For Corker and Flake, it is too late. For others, a far more powerful inoculation and indeed weapon is at hand. It is the threat of impeachment and conviction.

At some stage, to overcome the power of the White House and the threat of losing one's seat subtly at first and perhaps more bluntly later, members could raise the issue of presidential impeachment and conviction.

The possible grounds for such action are so broad that conceivably one will emerge to imperil the president, although incompetence and unfitness are not necessarily high crimes and misdemeanors. The Russian investigations could provide much ammunition from collusion to obstruction of justice. The threat of Trump family members facing prosecution or past advisers to include Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn copping pleas that implicate the president are not entirely out of the question.

The emoluments clause in the Constitution is in play, although legal counsel to any president will argue that the president is not covered because he is elected. Clearly, the president benefits financially from office as he has not completely shed his holdings. Nor has he released his income taxes. Given the spate of sexual harassment cases involving well-known personalities, allegations of his conduct could arise again.

More than likely, however, the president will be vulnerable to a more pressing vulnerability. If as the 2018 elections grow closer and it appears that the Republicans will be routed, political survival will take hold. If this occurs, party leaders will have no option except to confront the president, forcing him either to change his manner of governing -- which has virtually no chance of happening -- or threatening him with the I and C words -- impeachment and conviction. Further nails in this coffin could be supplied if or when his base begins to desert him and his popularity ratings drop well below 30 percent.

None of the above may happen. However, do not underestimate the extraordinarily difficult position Republicans on the Hill find themselves. This is a squeeze. And there may be no way out that serves the public interest.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America has Lost Every War it Starts," will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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