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When Senator Richard Burr (R.-N.C.) subpoenaed Donald Trump, Jr. to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee which he chairs, he set off a firestorm among Republicans. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has concluded, clearing the president, his family, and his campaign of “collusion” allegations by Democrats and giving Republicans a period of relative peace to regroup, advance the president’s agenda, and prepare for the 2020 elections.
So what’s going on? Why would the Republican-controlled Senate continue to pick at the scab? And why would GOP senators focus their attention on the president’s son of all people? It’s reckless and seems designed to provoke a confrontation with the president.
Much of the attention has focused on Burr, a lame-duck senator who says he isn’t seeking re-election in 2022.
But what about Burr’s boss, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)? McConnell is a savvy operator who rules with an iron fist in a velvet glove, so it would be a stretch to think that Burr did this without McConnell’s blessing.
In fact, while relatively quiet on the subject with the national media, McConnell supported Burr’s action in an interview with Kentucky radio station WHAS. By issuing a subpoena, the Senate chose to use the maximum legal means to compel the appearance of the president’s son. This is an essentially aggressive action.
Bear in mind that Donald Trump, Jr. has spent many hours testifying before Burr’s committee, as well as the House Intelligence Committee and Mueller’s team. It’s not as though they haven’t had ample opportunity to ask Don, Jr. questions over the past two years. So why now and why him?
Senators could have subpoenaed Christopher Steele, author of the discredited dossier that launched the collusion hoax. They could have subpoenaed former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power to ask her about unmasking the names of American citizens and exposing them to years of public abuse.
There are a lot of people from whom the Senate Intelligence Committee might profitably ask some pointed questions. But they didn’t subpoena any of them. They subpoenaed the president’s son. So again, why him and why now?
Fresh Battle in an Old Conflict
My view is that this is part of a cold war between Trump and McConnell that goes back to 2015.
McConnell has never been a Trump supporter. He’s never supported the America First agenda which he has consistently resisted and subverted. McConnell is emblematic of the permanent Washington class who think they can wait out Trump’s presidency, use him to further their own goals, and then return to business as usual.
Look at his track record. McConnell deserves credit for confirming a lot of Trump’s judges. But he’s also delayed confirmation of many of the president’s appointments, including key White House staff. Establishment candidates move swiftly through the Senate while known supporters of the America First agenda languish for months on end. That isn’t an accident.
What else has the Senate done? Tax cuts. And that’s about it. They have fought the president on immigration and border control, on fair trade, and just about everything else, even encouraging the president to take a more interventionist stance in foreign policy.
It’s helpful to consider the subpoena in that context and then perhaps it makes more sense as a signal to the president that McConnell has power and is willing to use it, not just to stymie policy but to harass the president’s family. It’s worth noting that McConnell’s family’s wealth is tied directly to China and he is likely unhappy with the president’s trade policy. It’s good for the country but it might not be so good for the majority leader’s family. (See Peter Schweizer’s book, Secret Empires.)
Which Way, GOP?
Don, Jr. has some options. He could comply with the subpoena, show up, and let Burr—and also a gaggle of hostile Democrats on the committee—have another go at him. Democrats would doubtless use the opportunity to try and entrap him and create a scandal out of whole cloth.
He could also go in and invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination. That is Lindsey Graham’s recommendation. The senator from South Carolina said Trump could “show up and plead the Fifth, and it’s over with.” Not a bad idea, but not ideal either. Pleading the Fifth Amendment if often accompanied by whiff of unconfessed guilt.
Or the Trumps could play to win. Don, Jr. could simply ignore the subpoena. McConnell’s Senate would then be forced either to hold him in contempt of Congress, which would require McConnell’s overt support ever to get to the floor for a vote, or senators would have to concede defeat. That puts a very public, very political burden on McConnell, who would be forced to declare his position for all to see. It’s not without risk, but it could be a very big victory for the president and his son.
There can only be one leader of the Republican Party. McConnell has shown that he is willing to sacrifice GOP victory for personal ambition. Look at how he attacked and ultimately destroyed Representative Mo Brooks (R.-Ala.), a solid Republican, in the 2017 Senate primary in Alabama because he opposed the weak Luther Strange, who was McConnell’s pick. In doing so, McConnell handed the primary victory to Judge Roy Moore—and thus a critical Senate seat to Democrat Doug Jones. It’s an example of a self-interested pol building a competing power structure that undermines the president’s agenda in pursuit of essentially personal, parochial interests. Tolerating that is a good way to lose the White House.
The apparent alliance between McConnell and Burr against Trump is a further skirmish in the ongoing civil war inside the Republican Party. Is it the party of America First or of Bush-era globalism and beautiful losers?
Some Republican senators are unamused. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) put it bluntly, calling the subpoena “overkill” and adding that “It is sort of malicious to bring the president’s family in here and subject them to more interviews.” The subpoena, Paul said, amounts to “overzealous prosecution of the president’s family.”
And he wasn’t alone. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “I can understand his frustration with being asked to come back after having cooperated for such a long period of time and now the Mueller report is concluded, sort of wondering what the purpose of this is.” Echoing Senator Paul’s frustration, Cornyn added, “At some point, this is not about finding facts.”
He’s right. It’s not. It’s inside the Beltway power politics and ultimately about who is in charge of the Republican Party. The president has the whip hand and he should use it.
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