Yesterday was not a good day for America, to put it lightly. After President Donald Trump’s disastrous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the country’s attention shifted to Republican lawmakers and leaders, wondering if this was finally the bridge too far.
In Iowa, the reaction was either silence or light criticism. None suggested any follow-up measures that might actually hold the President accountable on Russia or change his behavior in any way.
Senator Chuck Grassley grabbed some headlines by saying Trump “missed an opportunity to publicly press President Putin” on extraditions of the twelve Russians charged with hacking emails and servers of American political organizations. Congressman David Young said he would have preferred to see Trump “at least chastising Putin and warning him against acting against the interests and values of the United States and her republic in this way.”
Senator Joni Ernst’s response was the weakest of all (well, aside from those who said nothing at all). Here it is in full:
“I have the utmost faith in the U.S. intelligence community and their assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Russia has never been a friend to the U.S., and they continue to pose a threat to America and our allies.”
“We need to be cautious in how we approach our dealings with Russia. I hope that President Trump, today, delivered a strong message behind closed doors that Russia will continue to be punished for their illegal annexation of Ukraine in 2014, their abhorrent support for the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and their aggressive actions in U.S. domestic policy. I am also hopeful President Trump discussed Russia’s role in the Balkans, as Iowa’s sister state, Kosovo, continues to be threatened by Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics in Serbia.”
That is pathetic.
She is “hopeful” that Trump was tougher in private in Putin? I’m sorry, but how blind do you have to be to think that Trump, after everything we’ve seen of him, would suddenly play bad cop with Putin behind closed doors? Ernst’s words of support for America’s intelligence community mean nothing if she’s willing to give Trump a free pass on his public betrayal of those same people. Nothing changes if Trump’s actions don’t change. All of those issues she indicates she cares about aren’t going to get better.
Obviously, you could be critical of any of the Iowa Republicans who maintain their close relationships with Trump at the expense of the country on issues that are blatantly harmful to Iowa and America. Grassley has already done his part in undermining the Senate’s investigation into the 2016 election. Steve King is happily on board with the kind of un-democratic ethno-nationalism that is helping Putin destabilize Europe.
But there is something particularly galling about Ernst’s shameful response on this topic. Ernst is a combat veteran who served her country in the Iraq War and with the Iowa National Guard. Her over two decades of service in the military has been a central focus in her political profile and work in the Senate, and rightly so.
You don’t risk your life to protect your country just for the sake of fighting for your country. You do it because you believe in what your country stands for. And with America, that central underlying value is democracy and freedom, even if our country doesn’t get it quite right all the time.
And yet despite putting her life on the line to protect democracy while serving overseas, Joni Ernst refuses to take the slightest of political risks to protect democracy from the leader of her own party now that she’s in the Senate.
This isn’t some minor, media-driven squabble. We’re in an extremely important turning point in world history. The forces of democracy and multi-national cooperation that emerged after World War II and defeated the Soviet Union are under constant attack. The bonds that have kept Europe at peace are falling apart, egged on by a totalitarian ruler in Russia. Far-right groups inflaming ethnic strife threaten to return countries to their authoritarian past. There is no guarantee that democracy remains the preeminent form of government in the western world.
So when Trump publicly sides with Putin over America’s own intelligence agency’s factual assessment that Russia attacked and undermined American democracy, you damn well better have something more to say than you hope that Trump was tougher in private. You know he wasn’t.
Maybe Ernst should look to a fellow veteran involved in Iowa politics, Ken Rizer. The recently-resigned Republican legislator left the party outright yesterday over Trump’s press conference with Putin.
How does someone like Ernst make that transition from soldier to supplicant? Only she knows. It’s something you see often in politicians. They may come from humble or honorable backgrounds, but once they get into a position of power, they are remiss to do anything that may diminish or threaten that power.
Ernst has national ambitions. She was seriously considered for the vice president slot on Trump’s ticket. She often travels the country to speak at major Republican events. At age 48, she could have a long political career ahead of her, and a bid for president isn’t outside the realm of possibilities (or, at the least, a future vice president role or major cabinet position).
But she may want to think harder about those many years still in front of her.
Right now, it may seem the politically safe thing to not challenge Trump in a Republican Party that has been fully co-opted by him. The ravenous Republican base has bought into his cult of personality, and the state media of Fox News keeps them happily in the dark about any criticism or missteps. Being a Republican politician who dares to cross Trump on any issue can quickly land you on the outs with those people.
It’s certainly the cowardly choice. And the morally wrong one. Not to mention the incredibly dangerous one for world peace and the survival of democracy. But some, like Ernst, seem to think it’s the safer one in order to hold on to their own political power. It’s impossible to see any other explanation for her weakness on this issue – one you know she would feel differently about were a Democrat occupying the White House.
However, it’s unlikely to be the smart political choice in the long run. There is no way in which Trump’s complete submission to Putin ends well. No possible way. There will be further consequences, whether it comes from new information in Mueller’s investigation, additional attacks on American democracy by Russia that can’t be ignored, or future Russian aggression in Europe that Trump doesn’t stand up to.
It is not a sure bet that Trumpism will remain ever dominant in Republican politics, nor that there won’t come a day where the party looks back on it as a mistake. And that’s to say nothing of the rest of the American electorate. Senators like Ernst will have a lot to answer for when pressed on why they didn’t do more to stop the clearly-dangerous actions of a president intent on undermining the democracy she once fought for.
But hey, who knows, maybe Ernst is tougher with Trump in private.
by Pat Rynard
Photo via Ernst campaign ad