Cokie and Steven V. Roberts: Where are the patriots?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 21, 2018

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Are Republicans finally ready to hold President Trump accountable for his actions? Are they willing to take concrete measures to rein in a president whose appalling performance in Helsinki was called — by Newt Gingrich, a fervent supporter — “the most serious mistake of his presidency”?

Don’t bet on it. Yes, plenty of Republicans were quick to denounce Trump for demeaning his own intelligence agencies and accepting Vladimir Putin’s wholly unbelievable assurances that Russia never meddled in the 2016 elections. And yes, Trump — under enormous pressure — reluctantly reversed course after returning home and conceded that the agencies were correct.

But talk is cheap. And the basic challenge confronting Republicans remains the same. Many of them have been enabling Trump for a long time, choking down their misgivings, cheerleading for a president who remains wildly popular with the Republican rank-and-file. It’s hard to believe that they will now show some guts and say what many of them know in their hearts to be true: Trump is a dangerously unqualified and unstable leader who threatens to do lasting damage to America’s reputation, values and self-interest.

Doug Heye, a veteran GOP strategist, told The Wall Street Journal that “The Donald and Vladimir Show” would produce “hand-wringing statements but nothing serious or widespread.”

That reaction, though predictable, would still be tragic. Trump campaigned and won on two compelling slogans: that he would “put America first” and make it “great again.” In Helsinki, he did exactly the opposite, and no half-hearted and half-baked damage control can eradicate that stain.

He tore America down, blaming the “foolishness and stupidity” of his own country for the rupture of relations with Russia and believing a trained KGB agent instead of his own CIA analysts.

And he looked stunningly supine and spineless in the face of an evil dictator who has undermined our democracy, invaded the neighboring country of Ukraine and propped up one of the world’s bloodiest tyrants in Syria.

Even some Trump loyalists could not contain their dismay. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the president’s golfing buddy, said Trump’s refusal to confront Putin “will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves.”

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a former intelligence officer, lamented: “I’ve seen Russian intelligence manipulate many people over my professional career, and I never would have thought that the U.S. president would become one of the ones getting played by old KGB hands.”

Dan Coats, the president’s own director of national intelligence, directly contradicted his boss. “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished objective intelligence in support of our national security,” he said.

But Trump doesn’t want “unvarnished objective intelligence.” He insists on “alternative facts” that fit and foster his own distorted view of the world. So what can Republicans do to bolster the case for reality-based decision-making and contradict Trump’s serial fabrications?

One symbolic but useful gesture: Pass a resolution endorsing the conclusion that Russia did, in fact, try to subvert the election in Trump’s favor. Another idea: Hold well-publicized hearings to question Trump’s national security advisers about the president’s prevarications. Democratic leaders are proposing new money for states to beef up their election security.

Over Trump’s objections, Congress passed tough sanctions to punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea. House Speaker Paul Ryan, usually a Trump toady, told reporters he would be “more than happy” to consider additional penalties. “What we intend to do is to make sure that they don’t get away with it again,” Ryan said at a press conference.

A bipartisan bill is gaining strength that would impose new sanctions on Russia’s finance, energy and defense sectors if Moscow continues to tamper with American elections. “That certainly would send a very strong message to the Russians, which is needed to counter what the president said” in Helsinki, said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

The most important proposal would protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from being capriciously fired by a president who has mused, openly and often, that he’d like to do just that. But so far, Republican leaders, petrified of angering the president, refuse to bring the bill up.

After Helsinki, former CIA Director Robert Brennan asked, “Republican Patriots: Where are you???” That is a critical question. How Republicans answer it will deeply affect the rest of Trump’s presidency — and America’s standing in the world.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted at