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Trump the Clarifier

If nothing else, he has exposed historic hypocrisy in Congress on immigration and foreign affairs.

January 14, 2019

“Nothing says ‘freedom’ like the government snatching cash from people without bringing charges, then using that money [to] forcibly seize land from other people, all to build a wall to separate willing workers from the people who want to employ them,” journalist Radley Balko wrote Saturday in a Tweet responding to the latest immigration position taken by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.)

Meadows leads the diminished but still potent “Freedom Caucus” in the House of Representatives. And with Republicans now clearly losing the battle of public opinion over the federal government shutdown, and chaos and anger growing among federal workers, his new bright idea is for President Trump to “use asset forfeiture money or other discretionary fees to start construction” on a border wall (that we know will not stop undocumented immigration and that a majority of Americans do not want built). In other words, the leader of a conservative caucus of House members once dedicated to limiting the sweep of presidential power now wants to see an extraordinary (and perhaps unlawful) use of that power even if it means private landowners along the southern border will have their property seized.

Tired: All that Republican talk over the past 60 years about the sanctity of property rights and federalism and all that earnest outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. New London, the eminent domain case that launched a thousand angry panel discussions at conservative conferences. Wired: We had to stop President Barack Obama’s immigration policies, even though he never even tried to pull a stunt like this, but Trump of all people should be able to order federal agents to seize the property of Americans without even the patina of legislative or judicial buy-in. Asset forfeiture reform for me but not for thee.

If your head isn’t yet spinning from the gall of Meadows and company morphing into federal land-grabbers, consider the disheartening case of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who proudly was for reasonable immigration policies before he was against them. Six years ago, in fact, Graham was a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate when he declared 2013 the “year of immigration reform” in Congress. The comprehensive legislation he boldly endorsed then included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It did not include federal funding for the border wall the president says he needs to re-open the federal government.

Graham today? In the wake of Sen. John McCain’s death last year he has become an increasingly vocal and unhinged Trump toady. “Build the wall NOW,” the newly-minted chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee implored the president last week before blaming Democrats for not surrendering to the administration. Graham uttered his lament on the same day in which Trump himself reportedly rejected an immigration proposal that Senate Republicans had negotiated among themselves. “It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier,” Graham said Thursday. What Graham didn’t say – what few Republicans senators want to talk about these days –  is what’s changed since he and the rest of the Senate voted unanimously just last month to temporarily fund the government without the $5 billion Trump wants for his wall.

What’s changed for Graham and company? Not the pace of undocumented immigration. Border crossings from Mexico have been dropping for years and we now have definitive data that confirms that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native-born Americans. Despite the damnable lies the president and his tribunes routinely peddle,the “myth of the criminal immigrant” has been exposed in a way it was not in 2013 when Graham was pushing for bipartisan immigration laws. What’s changed for Graham, it’s clear, is the political ascent of Donald Trump and the success (at least among Republicans) of his white supremacist agenda. Clearly Graham thinks that message plays well in his native South Carolina.

Speaking of hypocrisy, and cynicism, and the biggest news of the past few days beyond the wall and shutdown, what else explains the Republican capitulation over national security, and Russia in particular, since January 2017? I am old enough to remember Republicans gleefully pillorying Democrats for being soft on the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. That wasn’t just the grand GOP strategy in the 1980s. It was a GOP strategy, more or less, until Trump became president. Now congressional Republicans like Graham have tethered their political futures to a president accused of being a covert Russian agent. Bold strategy, Cotton, as they say.

Even as Trump and his conservative allies bury themselves with his border war, the Russian front seems more likely to more permanently undermine this presidency. We know now that FBI officials reportedly felt compelled to launch a national security investigation into whether Trump is a Russian spy at the same time that Trump was taking extraordinary measures to keep secret the substance of his conversations with premier Vladimir Putin. This potential collusion and conspiracy hiding in plain view not only greatly raises the stakes for this week’s confirmation hearing for William Barr, Trump’s attorney-general-nominee, it also gives even more ammunition to congressional Democrats as they ramp up their oversight. And, as Marcy Wheeler suggests, it makes the issue of impeachment a legal issue, not just a political one.

The weekend’s bombshells also provide Republican senators like Graham with an opportunity to climb over at last onto the right side of history. To finally say: Enough is enough. So far, the results aren’t encouraging. On Sunday, for example, Graham called the Times’ allegations about Trump “astonishing” and said he would ask FBI Director Christopher Wray about them. But Graham made it clear he was more concerned about FBI overreach than he was about the substance of the claims against Trump. If the most conservative law enforcement agency in American history thinks there is evidence the president is a spy and your first takeaway as a senator is to blame the FBI, maybe it’s time to leave public office behind.

Graham knows that he can do far better. He can insist, for example, that Barr this week guarantees in sworn public testimony that he will either recuse himself from oversight of the Mueller investigation or at least leave Mueller alone to finish his work. Graham also can continue to press for a vote on the federal legislation that would help protect Mueller from Trump. The same is true of all those other Republican lawmakers who once hectored their Democratic colleagues for being soft on national security but who now offer excuses and justifications for Trump’s increasingly weak position.

The sad truth today is that America has a president who may be a clear and present national security threat. The FBI clearly thought there was evidence for this in 2017, but we don’t need the Feds to tell us what we see with own eyes. There’s the president’s obeisance to Putin and the dark financial ties to which the president’s men already have admitted. There’s the surrender in Syria. And on and on the suspicious White House behavior goes. Every public official who ignores the threat, or who conspires or colludes with the president to sustain the threat, is guilty of refusing to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. And then it’s not just about political hypocrisy. It’s about the meaning of patriotism in the age of Trump.

(Image: Getty/Win McNamee)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.