Standing between Trump and dictatorship: Congressional Republicans, the courts, and the Koch brothers

McCain speaks out.
McCain speaks out.
Image: Reuters/Mark Makela
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In the first few days after the US inaugurated its new president, Republicans who openly criticized Donald Trump on the campaign trail remained mostly mum as he issued executives orders that stretched the power of the presidency. Many were taking a “wait and see” approach, to find out if they could get the corporate tax breaks and regulatory rollbacks they want while Trump pushed parts of his agenda they don’t agree with.

That honeymoon is over now.

Over the weekend, Republican bankroller Charles Koch broached a topic that seemed unthinkable just months ago in America—that the US president could morph into a dictator, unless his power is checked. “We have a tremendous danger because we can go the authoritarian route … or we can move toward a free and open society,” Koch reportedly told a closed-door meeting of Republicans. A representative for the political network spearheaded by the multibillionaire and his brother David Koch said Sunday (Jan. 29) that Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order banning all refugees from coming into the country and halting immigration from select countries “is the wrong approach and will likely be counterproductive.” Republican US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are among those who issued strong statements condemning the measures.

Trump’s executive order on immigration sparked authoritarian fears not just for an anti-Muslim tone that critics say is unconstitutional, but because of the hasty, clandestine way in which it was compiled. A final copy of the order wasn’t reviewed by the US Department of Homeland Security until the day it was signed, CNN reported, or by Congressional committees already working on immigration policy, or by immigration officials until after it was signed, the Wall Street Journal reported. US Custom and Border Protection officials and agents at airports weren’t briefed on how it would work before they started detaining people at airports.

And yet, it immediately took effect, upending decades of US immigration policy.

Republicans who stood up to Trump on the immigration order already have earned the ire of the president himself, and his vocal and strident fan base. Graham and McCain are “wrong” and “sadly weak on immigration,” Trump tweeted after they criticized the order. The two senators were trolled with gifs of two-headed snakes on Twitter and accused of being “traitors” by alt-right Breitbart news readers.

Will the GOP Congress step up?

Congressional Democrats are already drafting a bill to repeal the immigration measures. But for it to pass, more Congressional Republicans will need to step up. That puts Republicans congressmen from states and counties that Trump carried (the overwhelming majority of them) in a tough spot—they would need to oppose the president’s policies, while not alienating his fans who could vote them out of office. That may prove impossible. Trump’s immigration order has the approval of a majority of voters in northeast Pennsylvania, for example, an area he carried.

Democrats can still influence the Senate. For example, they can ”withhold consent” on advancing any action, which can severely slow down votes and cabinet confirmations. But Democrats have just 48 seats to the Republicans’ 52. Serious checks, including freezing executive branch spending and passing new laws, need bipartisan support.

In addition to making laws, Congress controls the funds the executive branch has, and it has the power to impeach a president, making Republicans, who hold the majority in both chambers, one of the best bulwarks against Trump’s feared power grab. As the Washington Monthly put it, ”If a strongman government ever takes root in America, it will not be simply because we elected a president determined to establish it, but because Congress acquiesced in his designs.”

The limits of federal courts

The country’s federal courts provide another check, but their power is limited by how closely law enforcement follows their orders. Federal judges in Brooklyn, New York, and in Massachusetts issued temporary “stays” on Trump’s executive order, essentially meaning that affected foreign nationals wouldn’t be immediately returned to their home countries.

But border patrol agents at some airports are reportedly disregarding the federal judgement, according to immigration lawyers and Democratic representative Don Beyer of Virginia. He and other congressmen were turned away by US Customs and Border Protection agents at Dulles International Airport this weekend, when they asked the agents to uphold the order. The situation is nothing less than a “constitutional crisis,” Beyer wrote.

The constitutional legality of the order will be challenged in a court hearing in Brooklyn in February—unless it has been repealed by Congress before then.