Ben Sasse is a man of contradictions.
The junior senator from Nebraska is a frequent critic of President Trump but Sasse votes with him nearly 87 percent of the time. He laments inaction by Congress on big issues, but can boast of few legislative accomplishments that are his own. Sasse now claims he might leave the Republican Party—a threat he also made before Trump was elected—but he has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Republican donors and interest groups.
He blasts the president’s lack of civility, but he regularly demeans his colleagues, to say nothing of the president. Sasse complains that folks in Washington have no long term plan for the country, but he stumbles when asked for his own specific vision. And the father of three wrote a book chock full of advice about how to raise kids all before his own have even left home. (If Senate work doesn’t work out for him, perhaps he might find a bright future as a parenting blogger?) He has a new book to sell now, which could explain his latest PR stunt.
All of this has—of course—earned him the fawning admiration of establishment conservatives who view Donald Trump with horror and disdain. Sasse’s name has been floated by NeverTrumpers either as a primary or third-party challenge to the president in 2020, a proposition the 48-year-old, two-thirds of a first-term senator does not rebuff. The Ivy Leaguer is a perfect fit for outlier Republicans who sneer at Trump’s working-class base and his crass mannerisms.
A former college president, Sasse likes to pontificate and opine as though voters had possibly signed up for one of his classes. He’s made the rounds on late night and cable talk shows; his Twitter threat to dump the GOP earned him guest spots on two Sunday news programs over the weekend where he blathered on about Omarosa and Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort and a soap opera White House.
But one subject the quick-talking Sasse will not openly discuss is the unfolding scandal now roiling Washington and enraging Republicans across the country: How President Obama’s Justice Department spied on the Trump campaign, and how top law enforcement and intelligence officials weaponized their powers to try to destroy his candidacy and his presidency. For a guy so concerned with abuse of power and democratic norms and a crisis of public trust, Sasse’s silence on the biggest political scandal in U.S. history is conspicuous.
While other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have been outspoken about this fiasco, demanding documents and testimony, Sasse is missing in action. In fact, his dramatic Senate floor condemnation of Trump’s warning that he might fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggests Sasse either is completely unaware of or willfully ignoring the scandal. His comments defied reality:
Jeff Sessions statement today that the U.S. Department of Justice is filled with honorable dispassionate career prosecutors who execute their job in ways that the American people should be proud of is indisputably true. What he said is something that basically everybody in this body knows and agrees with.
Everyone in America and in the U.S. Senate thinks the Justice Department is doing a standup job devoid of politics? On what planet?
But Sasse redoubled his defense of the Justice Department again last week with another statement blasting the president. “The United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice—one for the majority party and one for the minority party.”
Possibly that’s what it says in Sasse’s civics textbooks, but in practice we know this is no longer true. Sasse should ask Republican voters in his state if they think it’s true. There is clear evidence of rampant bias in the DOJ and FBI and plenty to suggest that decision-making was influenced by politics. Few Republicans, anyway, believe the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton in 2016 was an “impartial administration of justice.” (Republicans’ approval of the FBI tanked between 2014 and 2017.)
Although Sasse has issued two statements in support of Sessions in recent weeks, he has not made any formal comments about the misconduct and potentially unlawful behavior of the following people: Former FBI Director James Comey; former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe; Assistant Attorney General Bruce Ohr; FBI lovers Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. His website contains no recent mention of any of these central players in the Trump-Russia collusion hoax, although he did praise the appointments of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and new FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Sasse’s incuriosity about possible corruption at the most powerful federal agencies he is duty bound to oversee is not new. In May 2017, as more evidence that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign became public, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. While his Republican colleagues asked pointed questions of the FBI director about potential FISA abuses and the illegally leaks of classified information, Sasse decided to change the subject and ask about cyber security. He then asked Comey to confirm that journalists who report leaked classified information are not subject to criminal liability.
Sasse criticized the president for firing Comey the following week, calling the ousted FBI director an “honorable public servant” and suggesting Trump did not have the authority to dismiss him because it was “political.” (The president can fire the FBI director for any reason.)
Comey is now under investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General for mishandling government documents. McCabe in under a grand jury investigation. Ohr twice has been demoted at the Justice Department; his wife, Nellie, worked for the political opposition research firm that produced the anti-Trump dossier and both Ohrs were in contact with the dossier’s author, Christopher Steele. Strzok and Page had numerous exchanges about how to stop Trump’s candidacy and then undermine his administration after he was elected. (New text messages released Monday show the pair were illegally leaking classified information to reporters.)
So here is a Senate scold, wagging his finger on cable news outlets about constitutional checks and balances and grieving about how Americans have lost faith in our institutions—and he has nothing to say on this matter? If ever there was an example of a rogue institution that trampled on the rights of a free people whose unelected bureaucrats wielded their unchecked power for political purposes, it is the Trump-Russia collusion scam. And it occurred on Sasse’s watch, seemingly without his concern.
Sasse is right about some things. Our kids need to appreciate the value of work and the roots of the nation they are blessed to call home. Our leaders need to do a better job safeguarding the constitutional foundation of our government.
He’s also correct that there is a crisis of confidence in institutions we should trust and that we pay for. But that crisis is not because of Trump’s tweets or Omarosa’s secret tapes. It’s because powerful public bureaucracies have run amok, operated by unelected, power-hungry apparatchiks who target their political foes while those responsible for reining them in write books and joke around with Bill Maher. Sasse is good at telling his colleagues to do a better job. He might want to take his own advice.
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