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Opinion: The Grand Old Patsies

Few Republicans dare to criticize Trump over his behavior toward Putin

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has put forward a counterproposal to the Green New Deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has put forward a counterproposal to the Green New Deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Commenting after President Donald Trump’s performance in Helsinki, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell observed, “I have said a number of times, I’ll say it again: The Russians are not our friends. And I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community.”

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said in a release, “There is no doubt that Russia interfered in our 2016 presidential election.”

Neither lawmaker directly criticized Trump, and neither senator castigated the president of the United States for believing Vladimir Putin over the assessment of his own intelligence agencies and experts.

Texas Republican John Cornyn, the majority whip, followed suit, and on the PBS NewsHour, Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul both defended Trump and bashed Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the relatively few Republicans who has demonstrated real character over and over again.

What is lacking from these and most other Republicans is any sign of outrage at Trump’s performance in Helsinki. Yes, they said they believed the U.S. intelligence community, not Putin, but they wouldn’t criticize the president directly or express shock or disgust at Trump’s embrace of the Russian strongman.

It’s true that a handful of Republicans stepped up to criticize the president, including McCain, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, Texas Rep. Will Hurd and Mitt Romney, who is likely to be in the Senate when 2019 rolls around and who called Trump’s performance in Helsinki “disgraceful.”

But the list of Republicans who denounce the president by name is short.

For me, the greatest disappointment is Tennessean Alexander, whom I always regarded as a man of character, substance and dignity.

We all know that Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar and Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert aren’t the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, and nobody expects ideologues like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton or Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson to put country ahead of party or personal ideology.

And McConnell cares primarily about getting power and keeping it, especially if that means enacting conservative policies.

But I expect more from Alexander, who recently turned 78 years old and isn’t up for reelection until 2020.

A former governor of Tennessee, president of the University of Tennessee and secretary of Education, Alexander graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt and earned a law degree from New York University.

He worked for Sen. Howard Baker and for Bryce Harlow in the Nixon White House. I remember trailing Alexander (along with my colleague and friend Charlie Cook) around the Iowa State Fair once during one of his presidential bids.

Few people recognized him, but that didn’t stop him from trying to get attention so that he could talk about public policy and the nation’s top office.

He was a hard worker and a serious person, particularly when it came to addressing education issues.

I certainly understand why people like Alexander, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and South Dakota’s John Thune would rather hide in a foxhole than take shots at Trump.

The president always returns incoming fire, and few members of a president’s party want to take the abuse that Trump likes to dish out.

Moreover, Portman (62), Thune (57) and Gardner (43) are young enough that they can hope to have many more years in the Senate, possibly even higher office.

Criticizing Trump directly and with the outrage that the president’s behavior deserves could well end their electoral careers prematurely.

Trump’s standing among Republicans nationally is strong, and the president has spent the last two years rebuilding Putin’s reputation among the GOP grass roots.

Watch: What Summit? A Muted GOP Response, Then Back to Business on the Hill

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According to the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners in January of this year had a favorable view of Putin — a marked increase from 2015, when only 11 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners had a similar view.

But to understand why Republican officeholders with an ounce of integrity, intelligence and self-respect don’t tear into Trump for his lack of civility, dignity, integrity and embrace of authoritarians is not to excuse their silence.

At some point, everyone should agree that there must be a time to put country over party and ideology. We are at that point now.

I am not at all sure that Democrats would behave any differently than Republicans are now behaving if the shoe were on the other foot.

In fact, as I recall, few Democrats complained about Bill Clinton even after he said, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

But Clinton’s transgressions pale in comparisons to Trump’s.

The Democrat did not give aid and comfort to America’s longtime adversary or undermine institutions crucial to our freedom and national security.

Only Donald Trump has done that.

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