WASHINGTON ― Perhaps more than any time in his historically unhinged presidency, Donald Trump is coming apart ― and the limitations of Congress to constrain the president are on full display.
Trump is facing an increasingly serious challenge, with Democrats more determined than ever to impeach him and Republicans finally showing signs of discomfort. In the latest poll, 58% of Americans now support an impeachment inquiry, with even 1 in 5 Republicans backing the move.
Support for impeachment is also still growing. Nearly every day since the public learned of a whistleblower’s complaint about a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, there has been another bombshell discovery that leaves GOP lawmakers struggling to defend Trump’s actions. Trump himself seems to have settled on a strategy where he and his administration completely refuse to cooperate with Congress.
On Wednesday, he ordered the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, not to testify before the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the July phone call with Ukraine. And later in the day, Trump’s White House counsel sent a letter to House leaders telling them that the president wouldn’t comply with their “unauthorized impeachment inquiry.”
While Trump throws a legal temper tantrum over the investigation into Ukraine, he has also made one of the rashest foreign policy decisions of his presidency: pulling U.S. troops out of northern Syria, opening the way for the Turkish military to attack the United States’ Kurdish allies.
“This incident maybe more than any other exposes this lie that there are adults in the room that are controlling him and reining him in and containing his awful impulses,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told HuffPost this week.
Huffman expressed concern that there’s no one to stop Trump from “flailing” because Congress really can’t do much to check this president.
“Congress has a limited set of tools for this situation. Impeachment and whatever spotlight we can shine on these things through investigation and oversight is about it,” he said.
Huffman added that Congress could try to contain certain behavior through legislative language in an upcoming spending bill to keep the government open, “but he’s just going to ignore it.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former constitutional law professor, told HuffPost on Wednesday that he really only saw impeachment as the remedy.
“Impeachment is the people’s last line of constitutional defense,” Raskin said.
Raskin did bring up the possibility of removing Trump through the 25th Amendment, which deals with the vice president becoming the president in certain circumstances ― like health-related emergencies. But the congressman noted it was a higher bar to meet than impeachment and would require the cooperation of Vice President Mike Pence.
These are not things that a sane person does.Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.)
Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) also expressed concern that, short of an impeachment that may not result in his removal from office, Congress had limited tools to tame Trump.
“There’s really no legislative way to constrain him,” Yarmuth said.
He also brought up not appropriating certain funds, but said that wouldn’t work. Trump has shown a willingness to ignore how Congress appropriates money and spend it as he sees fit, and he’s also shown he’s willing to just shut down the government. Yarmuth also brought up the 25th Amendment, but suggested the only cure was impeachment.
“If we can move the needle even a little bit from where it is now, I think there will be Republican senators who will think twice,” he said.
Yarmuth thought it came down to polling for a lot of GOP senators, who will vote on whether to remove Trump from office if he is impeached by the House. But he didn’t think Trump’s behavior would really play a factor.
“If behavior hasn’t moved them by now, it’s probably not going to,” he said. Yarmuth mentioned Trump’s recent actions, between the Turkey decision and even a tweet where he cited his “great and unmatched wisdom.”
“These are not things that a sane person does,” Yarmuth said.
The budget chairman also raised questions about Trump’s motives for pulling out of Syria, in appeasement to Turkey.
“The one thing that scares me about this is he obviously has financial interests in Turkey and is doing something that clearly would be what Putin would want him to do,” Yarmuth said, referring to Trump Towers Istanbul and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also supports pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.
The decision to pull out of Syria is particularly troubling because it goes against almost all U.S. strategic interests and leaves Kurdish allies extremely vulnerable. Trump decided to pull out after a call this month with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and very little input from his advisers.
Raskin charged that Trump was only “waging war on Congress” by refusing to cooperate with the impeachment investigation as a way to distract from his “craven surrender to authoritarians and despots all over the world.”
“It’s a terrifying situation to have a guy who wraps himself in the rhetoric of ‘America First,’ then tries to turn the American presidential election into a sewer of foreign interference and sabotage,” he said.
Raskin added that Trump was only a nationalist when it comes to questions of race and ethnicity. “When it comes elections and financing his campaigns, he’s a globalist right up there with Vladimir Putin.”
Republicans themselves are struggling to explain Trump’s Syria decision ― or better yet, to influence it.
One of Trump’s staunchest defenders, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), tweeted Wednesday that a Turkish military advance into Syria would halt progress that Kurdish allies had made against ISIS in the region.
“Turkey should stop immediately and continue to work with the US to secure the region,” McCarthy wrote.
Short of ineffectual tweets, however, there isn’t much Congress can do. McCarthy can try to convince Trump that Turkey is already going back on its word. Turkey is already launching military strikes against Kurdish forces that are close to Turkey’s borders. But it really comes down to Trump, in his great and unmatched wisdom.
Lawmakers just don’t have a good answer when it comes to controlling Trump.
When we asked Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) what Congress could do, his answer was: “I support impeachment.”
Amash added that he didn’t know if there were other remedies, because, “I’ve never served with a speaker who runs the place properly.”
(Amash left the Republican Party in July, in part, due to the GOP’s obedience to Trump, but he’s been opposed to most of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s legislative agenda as well.)
“Short of articles of impeachment, I don’t really know what Congress can do,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told HuffPost on Wednesday. “We can go to the courts, but the courts are just sort of a delay tactic.”
Khanna added that Trump obviously had no respect for Congress, and that his plan with impeachment and the Ukraine investigation was simply to “stonewall and obstruct.”
“He’s in the most vulnerable place he’s been in his presidency,” Khanna said.
That’s a true and scary statement. The Trump we’ve seen thus far has been one who’s faced no real threat of removal from office. Now, with some Republicans starting to crack ― in the words of Huffman, “there are a lot of new cracks, and maybe even some fissures” ― Trump could act even more desperately.
Ironically, because Congress has so few tools to address a president acting unilaterally and irrationally, Democrats may have an easier time convincing Republicans that impeachment and removal from office is the only answer.
When HuffPost contacted Pelosi’s office for comment on how Congress could respond to Trump’s behavior, a spokeswoman said “the only remedy” was the one outlined in the Constitution: impeachment.