Is it possible? Are Republicans finally smelling the Trumpster fire?

Did my ears deceive me? Did I actually hear Pa. Republican senator Pat Toomey rebuke Donald Trump? In so many words, yes. And it's about time.

U. S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.,

U. S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., pauses during a press conference on Monday March 5, 2018 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

Did my ears deceive me? Did I actually hear Pat Toomey rebuke Donald Trump? Did the Pennsylvania Republican senator, one of Trump’s infamous abetters, actually warn us yesterday (as if we didn’t know this two years ago) that Trump is a clear and present danger to our national security?

In so many words, yes. And it’s about time. Maybe, just maybe, the Republicans in Washington — most notably, the Senate Republicans who might be tasked with voting in a 2019 impeachment trial — are finally rousing themselves from their long shameless slumber. If Toomey’s willingness to speak out is any indication, maybe it means they’re finally awakening to the long-proven fact that Trump is betraying their party principles, imperiling our increasingly fragile democracy, and wreaking global havoc. And heck, maybe they’ll actually do something about it.

OK, maybe that last sentence is a pipe dream. But what Toomey said on TV yesterday — in reaction to Trump’s Putin-friendly  pullout from Syria, Trump’s assaults on the western alliance that has sustained America for 70 years, and Trump’s alienation of Defense Secretary James Mattis (who yanked every alarm on his way out of the Pentagon) – made it quite clear that even Republicans who’ve disgracefully indulged him are finally getting fed up. Or starting to get fed up. Whatever the correct calibration may be, it’s progress.

Granted, Trump’s racism, serial lies, and endless scandals (both foreign and domestic) should’ve triggered Republican ire long ago, but, hey, in this desperate hour we’ll take what we can get. If Trump’s impulsive military retreat — which blindsided the military and the anti-terrorism experts — is the seminal event that wakes up the Republicans, fine.  When Toomey was asked yesterday whether he was disturbed by Trump’s foreign policy wreckage, he replied:

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Yes…the president has views that are very, very distinct from the vast majority of Republicans and, probably, Democrats, elected and un-elected. And I think the president does not share, I would say, my view that the Pax Americana of the post-war era has been enormously good for America. It’s been good for the people that I represent. It’s been great for all of us. And it had taken a commitment of leadership. It’s taken the ability and willingness to project force, at times. But mostly, as General Mattis points out (in his resignation letter), it’s cultivating an alliance…And I don’t think the president shares that view nearly to the extent that the rest of us do. And I think senators need to step up and reassert a bigger role for the Senate in defining our foreign policy…I think senators should speak out. And look, we were elected separately from the president. We don’t report to the president.”

We should hold our applause, of course. Trump would not be where he is – and we would not be living this nightmare — if Republicans had stepped up in 2016, if Republicans hadn’t succumbed to the laughable fantasy that this guy could be controlled by “adults.” But we are where we are, and, at this point, it’s nice to hear rumblings of dissent from a Republican who will still be on the job in 2019. Because, frankly, I’m tired of hearing from Bob Corker.

The lame duck Tennessee senator is heading for the exit, and whenever he talks the truth about Trump  (“When you start willy-nilly foreign policy moves that are against U.S. interests, that is a wake-up call for people in the Senate”), I can’t help but remember that Corker had subpoena power as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but he did nothing. No oversight, no probes, no signals to Trump (beyond occasional verbal jibes) that he’d pay a price for his wanton behavior.

Are Republican senators truly willing to confront Trump, as Toomey suggested, if only to defend and salvage the GOP’s traditional brand? Remember when the GOP prided itself on being the national security party? Some Republican senators clearly do. Last week, in a letter to Trump, four of them (Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio) said that his decision to cut and run from Syria was “a premature and costly mistake” that “threatens the safety and security of the United States.” Ernst later told Politico: “I would just love the president to listen to those military advisers and make sure that we’re taking the fight to terrorists overseas, not allowing them to come here.”

It’s a noteworthy development that such a quartet is essentially calling Trump a threat to American security. David Frum, the conservative commentator and ex-Bush speechwriter, offers this perspective: “So long as Mattis stayed on the job, Republicans in Congress could indulge the hope that responsible people remained in charge of the nation’s security. That hope has now been repudiated by the very person in whom the hope was placed. It’s James Mattis himself who is telling you (in his resignation letter) that the president does not treat allies with respect, does not have a clear-eyed view of malign actors and strategic competitors…And now the question for Congress is: The Klaxon is sounding. The system is failing. What will you do?”

What indeed. A former Trump aide, a self-described “Trump ally,” told Axios over the weekend that if Republican senators become sufficiently terrified about Trump’s threats to our national security, many will be less willing to save him in the wake of a House impeachment. The Trump ally said: “Once Republican lawmakers start rebuking the president publicly like this over policy, it makes it easier for them to say, ‘It’s not Mueller or ethics. There are other concerns.’ Then it’s a slippery slope.”

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What are Senate Republicans prepared to do in the short term? Assuming that Trump  nominates a new Defense secretary to replace Mattis, would they vote to confirm someone who supports Trump’s pro-Putin weakening of America? Would Toomey vote to confirm such a person?

His reply, yesterday: “The president’s views are so divergent, certainly, from mine that I think I’ll be much — this one — this one’s going to be tough. I’m going to be looking for a defense secretary that shares a more traditional view about America’s role in the world.”

Is it actually possible — at this eleventh hour of peril — that some Republicans are rediscovering their spines? What a Christmas gift to America that would be.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal