WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to the Senate floor for a vote on legislation advancing McConnell's plan voicing opposition to U.S. President Donald Trump's intention of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria on January 31, 2019 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted in overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion in favor of the legislation, rebuking President Trump's policy. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Administrative State

McConnell and the Iron Triangle vs. Trump and the Voters


- February 2nd, 2019
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) aligned with the NeverTrump faction of Republican senators Thursday to introduce and pass a resolution to “rebuke” President Trump. The president’s offenses? Trump dared to win the Republican nomination in 2016 and has dared, at least some of the time, to think for himself since taking office.

Instead of supporting the Republican and independent voters who knowingly nominated and elected a man committed to foreign policy change, McConnell is sticking stubbornly to the foreign policy approach that failed America and the world.

The battle lines of the Republican civil war are drawn: Kentuckian McConnell, in league with Mitt Romney of Utah, assailed the president’s order to bring American troops home from Afghanistan as “precipitous.”

Kentucky’s junior and more popular Republican senator, Rand Paul, meanwhile retorted: “It is ludicrous to call withdrawal after 17 years ‘precipitous.’”

The Iron Triangle Asserts Itself
McConnell’s resolution aims to undermine the commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan and Syria. It also takes the side of the permanent intelligence bureaucracy against the president. Trump has expressed skepticism about reports from the national intelligence agencies. They are supposed to work for the president, but McConnell is more comfortable if the president is subservient to them. That arrangement perpetuates the Iron Triangle of which McConnell is, as Bill Kristol might put it, a bulwark.

The Iron Triangle is the combination of Congress, the permanent federal bureaucracy, and special-interest groups—often including the special-interest group that is the ideologically leftist mainstream media.

The struggle between Trump and the woefully large number of pre-Trump Republicans in the Senate is not really about the true constitutional separation of powers. McConnell and crew are not standing up for the rightful power of the legislative branch as the Framers intended; they are shilling for the Iron Triangle.

Freshmen senators seem to find out early how to win the good graces of the liberal media and the permanent bureaucracy. Barely four weeks into their tenure, every new GOP senator—Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Mike Braun (Ind.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Martha McSally (Ariz.), Rick Scott (Fla.), and (of course) Romney—voted against the president and for the swamp. Meanwhile, Blackburn, Braun, Hawley, and Scott owe their come-from-behind victories solely to Trump’s unflagging support.

There is no clearer sign of hubris than this: Establishment Senate Republicans are breaking with the president because Trump’s approval-disapproval rating is 42 percent-55 percent.

And what is the approval-disapproval rating of the GOP Senate geniuses of self-preservation? It’s 12 percent-69 percent.

Mitch McConnell, call your pollster.

Historical Precedent
Today’s situation is reminiscent of another break-the-mold president and the challenges he faced from the ancien régime of his own party.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the pre-Reagan Republican senators were a stumbling block to his policy initiatives. Let’s take the example of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Reagan dramatically announced SDI in 1983, in a shock to Capitol Hill and to almost everyone on his own administration’s national security team. It was a closely held initiative, put forward against what certainly would have been the opposition of his secretary of state, George Shultz, and most of Shultz’s team at the State Department.

Shultz was an excellent secretary of state, but he was not infallible. He would have been quite a bad secretary of state if Reagan hadn’t ordered him to support bold initiatives that Shultz’s bureaucracy fought against.

Recall when Reagan became president, he was inheriting a bureaucracy and a set of policies and a set of diplomatic and policy “processes” that had been cultivated most recently by Jimmy Carter and just before that by Gerald Ford. Reagan’s election was a repudiation of both Carter and Ford; it emphatically was not a mandate for another Ford Administration.

The Iron Triangle fought mightily against missile defense. Why, if developed and implemented, it would have violated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972! Old Guard Republican resistance to effective missile defenses continued into the George H.W. Bush Administration, when, in 1991, Nixonite senators Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), William Cohen (R-Maine), and John Warner (R-Va.) broke with the White House to water down that administration’s not especially robust proposals.

Just imagine if Lugar, Cohen, Warner and the Iron Triangle had prevailed and Reagan’s SDI had been strangled in the crib. The world would be a different place. There would be no ballistic missile defenses to protect the United States and Israel. Perhaps the Soviet Union would still exist.

But within the Iron Triangle, no bad deed goes unrewarded. The New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for “explanatory journalism” for a series of now-discredited articles in 1985 denigrating the strategic rationale and feasibility of missile defenses.

Battling the Bureaucracy
Trump has inherited a bureaucracy and policy and policy “processes” from Barack Obama and George W. Bush and the State Department of Hillary Clinton. Consider: All of the transition briefing books prepared before the election by the Obama Administration for the next president were intended for Hillary Clinton. But Republican primary voters decisively chose Trump, who repudiated the George W. Bush foreign affairs disasters while the other candidates offered themselves as Dubya on steroids.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is wrong when he claims “this is an intel community that the president has largely put in place.”

He may be thinking about his friend, former senator and current national intelligence director Dan Coats. Coats is a good and capable man, as was George Shultz. But much of what Coats delivers, just as much of what Shultz delivered, is the product of an entrenched career bureaucracy.

The current head of the CIA is a career agency bureaucrat. No matter the personal merits of the individual, the CIA never should be run by a careerist. In the instance of the actual director, Gina Haspel, there’s evidence she should have been fired last fall. The CIA leaked misleading reports about the much-publicized death of renegade Saudi agent Jamal Khashoggi, leaks designed to undermine President Trump. That was a firing offense. Why does she still have a job?

No president can change the intelligence community very much. That’s why it’s called the deep state. It’s a permanent bureaucracy, not especially accountable to presidents, and much inclined to preserve its prerogatives by serving the Iron Triangle against presidential authority.

This struggle is about policy differences and preservation of power by a class that American voters emphatically have rejected.

Instead of trying to push the president around, the Senate should get its own national security house in order. In particular, freshman senators elected in 2018 because of Trump’s support should back the president, not the Iron Triangle.

The Senate Is Out of Order
If the Senate wants to exercise its constitutional duty, it should demand that the appointment of NeverTrumper Elliott Abrams, foreign policy advisor to failed presidential candidate Marco Rubio, as “special envoy” to Venezuela be revoked unless Abrams is confirmed by a Senate vote. Abrams’ new position is much more powerful than that of ambassadors, assistant secretaries of state, or even undersecretaries of state. It is a scandalous defiance of “advice and consent” for this deep state figure to be given such a post without hearings or a vote.

If the Senate wants more respect from the White House and the voters, it should get serious about its own breaches of security. When James Wolfe, the director of security of the Senate Intelligence Committee, an epitome of the Iron Triangle, was arrested and convicted of lying to investigators about leaks, Republican chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Democratic vice-chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) appealed for clemency. Fortunately, the sentencing judge ordered Wolfe to prison. Compounding the scandal was that the purpose of the leaks was to harm President Trump and to propagate false witness against Trump’s unfairly vilified campaign adviser, Carter Page.

With Republicans like McConnell and Burr and Romney and Rubio, who needs foes like Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)?

Pre-Trump and anti-Trump Republican senators are gambling that they can ride out the Trump years and that things will return in 2021 to the status quo ante of George W. Bush foreign policy. They resemble the Republican Old Guard that considered Reagan a fluke and a nuisance and pined for a return to the comfort zone they had enjoyed with Jerry Ford.

These will be the questions for voters to decide next year. Would Republican Senate bosses be wise to run their negative 57 percent approval rating against Trump’s negative 13 percent approval rating? For that matter, would Republican donors be sane to contribute to anti-Trump senators in this environment? Most important of all, do Americans really want a reversion to the George W. Bush era?

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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