Republicans control the White House and Congress. But over the past several months of Donald Trump’s presidency, congressional Republicans have slowly started to find subtle ways to oppose and constrain the president.
Two newly introduced bipartisan bills would notably limit his ability to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, and this week Trump signed a piece of legislation, passed by veto-proof majority, that would limit his ability to roll back sanctions against Russia. Politico summarized this as “reining in Donald Trump.” The Senate also took time to put a procedural block on Trump making recess appointments — what many see as preventing him from firing and quickly replacing “beleaguered” Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The quotes Politico got from GOP senators are striking in their stridency, with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) talking about Trump as a “reluctant” ally:
"As we've seen on the Russian sanctions bill, sometimes the president will come along, even reluctantly, and we'll be able to make progress,” Cornyn said. "Historically, it hasn't always been the case that the president is the one who sets the policy and Congress responds. It was that Congress led. And I think this is the opportunity we have now and I welcome that."
Other Republicans quoted by Politico sounded almost as if they were members of an opposition party — explaining it was a “good thing” that Congress was limiting the president’s powers. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) noted that the sparring was indicative of Congress claiming its status as equal to the executive:
“That’s a good thing, right?” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking GOP leader, said of the moves to establish more independence from Trump. “It’s important that Congress assert its authorities under the Constitution and be an equal branch of the government.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), a co-sponsor of the bill to protect Mueller, seemed to agree with Thune, telling Politico:
“If you look back over the last 75 years, there have been a number of instances where Congress has conveyed authority to the president because it happened to be their president in the White House,” Tillis added. “It’s more appropriate to be reserved here on Capitol Hill.”
This inter-branch tension is a feature rather than a bug of the United States political system — but usually one that isn’t as prominent when one party controls both Congress and the executive branch.
Trump spoke out about Congress’s sanctions against Russia in his typical fashion, with some angry tweets.
Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2017
Meanwhile, Congress closed up shop and went home for August recess.