So, I’d been meaning to write an update on this recent post about John McCain, Hero WARship, for a few days now, but I got a little sidetracked trying to keep up with all the news on the GOP health “care” reform efforts. But now with the unceremonious firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, this seems like the perfect time to get to it.
If you missed that post, the reason the Comey incident brings an opening for an update is that Hero WARship (along with an earlier, related post on McCain, Holding Out For a Hero) was about the idea that many in the media, and many Trump resistors as well, seemed to believe early on that McCain might be the guy who could lead the Republicans out of the wilderness and into some real oversight of Trump, especially on the Russia issue. Both of my earlier posts said basically: don’t count on it. He talks a good game, but his actions never back it up. (If you have a chance, please read the earlier posts, for the nuances of the argument).
The initial idea of McCain as the savior who’d stand up to Trump arose from the fact that he genuinely was one of the rare Republicans willing to criticize Trump, especially in month one of Trump’s presidency. But my most recent of the two McCain posts, Hero WARship, was about some recent developments which indicated that Trump and McCain were actually beginning to develop a bit of a friendship, or at least an alliance of sorts. Trump was finally following the kind of foreign policy that makes Senator McCain happy and appointing foreign policy advisors that McCain approved of. So McCain’s criticism had subsided substantially.
So it had become all the more clear McCain wasn’t going to be willing to rock the boat by putting any real actions behind the talk. Shortly after I wrote that post, even more news came out to support the contention that Trump and McCain were forging a strong connection: On May 4, multiple news outlets reported that Cindy McCain, the Senator’s wife was expected to be offered a senior role in Trump’s State Department.
But then, Tuesday afternoon came Comey’s unexpected firing. That act seemed to rise to a whole new level of scandal for people on both sides of the aisle (or at least a few people on the Republican side of the aisle, anyway). So will this time be different for McCain? Will this finally be the event that pushes him to act, instead of just give us some maverick-y sounding words?? I genuinely don’t know. As you’ve seen here, I’ve been as cynical about Senator McCain as anyone. But I’m hoping that maybe this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for him.
I’m of two minds on this. There have been numerous reports over the last several months that all the Russia stuff really riles McCain up, angers him like nothing else. And while he’s calling for a select committee now to investigate Russia, this isn’t new, he’s called for this before. But as I’ve noted several times already, he’s never been willing to stick his neck out to actually make something happen on it. He’s had several mechanisms at his disposal to force his party to take action on the issue, and he’s never used them. So I have my doubts that this time will be any different.
However, there are a couple reasons (aside from the fact that this situation just elevates the stakes so much higher) that this time could be different. The first reason is that for the first time, McCain might have some backup from other members of his party. Even after this very disturbing event, the vast majority of the Republican Party either rallied around Trump with support, or remained silent. However, there was a small group of Republicans who criticized Trump’s actions, and an even smaller group who called for a stepped up investigation (either a special prosecutor or a select committee) as a result of Comey’s firing. (In the Senate, McCain is actually the only one willing to call for a stepped up investigation, the rest have, at most, said they’d consider or look into the additional investigations).
For example, Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, which is running the Senate investigation on Russia, said that he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning” of the firing. However, he said he does not support the appointment of a special prosecutor. Senator Jeff Flake, McCain’s fellow Senator from Arizona, tweeted Tuesday evening, “I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing. I just can’t do it.” And he said on Wednesday that:
With regard to a special prosecutor, I’m looking to see how that would impact the Senate investigation that’s going on. I have confidence in the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation so still reviewing.”
Other GOP Senators who either criticized Trump’s decision or said that he needs to provide more answers about why he did it include: Bob Corker, Ben Sasse, and John Boozman. Additionally a couple members of the House who are probably looking at tough re-election fights in 2018 – Rep. Barabara Comstock and Rep. Carlos Curbelo – have expressed support for stepped up investigations. Rep. Justin Amash, who is very often an independent voice in the House and rarely has a problem thwarting leadership (though he did vote “yes” on the health care bill, a rare instance of him being reined in by the Party) also tweeted about his distress over Trump’s decision:
So, the numbers are very small, but this is still quite a few more Republicans than have ever stood up to Trump on any issue, other than the first health care bill (and that was about the substance of the bill, not a direct rebuff of Trump). So it’s possible – not likely – but possible, that they might find some strength in numbers and actually really start to push this issue. So what would “pushing” it look like, other than just more talking? Well, in the Senate, they could really make something happen, because their majority is so slim. They hold 52 seats, and they need 50 votes to pass anything with Vice President Pence breaking the tie (anything not subject to a filibuster) or approve any appointments.
So McCain can refuse to vote for anyone to become the next FBI Director until Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein agrees to appoint a special prosecutor (Rosenstein would make the decision on that since AG Sessions is recused from anything pertaining to Russia) or until Mitch McConnell agrees to a select committee investigation. McCain would need two other Senators to join him in order to actually make this work, but if he took the lead, he might be able to find two others, maybe Lindsey Graham* or Bob Corker or Marco Rubio (who’s expressed concern about Russia in the past though he’s been completely MIA lately).
And that leads to the second reason that I think there’s a teeny, tiny chance that maybe this could be a turning point for McCain. There actually was a vote that made it clear that something definitely snapped for him this week. The only question is whether it’s just a momentary break or whether he’s reached the point of no return. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans held a vote on overturning an Obama-era rule meant to curb methane emissions. Because they were using a special maneuver to reverse this rule, they only required a simple majority vote (i.e. Democrats couldn’t filibuster it).
So Republicans believed they had the votes to pass this legislation. But the vote unexpectedly failed on the Senate floor. The reason? Senator McCain had voted against it. Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins were the other two votes against it, but their “no” votes had been expected. McCain had been expected to vote for it. So no one knows exactly what happened at the last minute to change his mind, but he was seen on C-SPAN video arguing with three other Senators on the Senate floor right before he registered his “no” vote.
So of course there was speculation on Twitter that he did it out of spite over the Comey firing. The Intercept even had a whole article making that case (I’ve never cited the Intercept here before because I don’t have enough experience with it to know if it’s reliable, but I thought their argument was interesting, so I’m using it here). However, other reporters pointed out that John McCain has a relatively friendly record (“relatively” being the key word) on environmental issues, and he had also previously expressed concern about using this particular procedural method for overturning the rule since it would bar the Bureau of Land Management from ever making a similar rule again. So McCain may have simply had substantive objections to this legislation.
Either way though, this was the first time Trump had any vote fail on the floor of either the House or the Senate. And McCain was the one who made it happen. Up until Tuesday, McCain had not been willing to do that. In fact, he hadn’t been willing to vote against Trump on anything other than one vote against Trump’s nominee for Budget Director (and that was only because that nominee, Mick Mulvaney, had voted for cuts to the military when he was a member of the House, and also because McCain knew his vote wasn’t going to sink the nomination). So Wednesday’s vote on the methane rule – that was something new and different.
Does it signal anything bigger to come, or was it just one small vote and we shouldn’t read anything into it?? Maybe McCain just needed to vent and get it out of his system and next week it’ll be back to business as usual – lots of talk and no action. I don’t know. And even if this is a new McCain, a genuinely maverick-y McCain, will he be able to push other members of his party enough for it to make a difference?? I still think it’s a long shot that we’re ever going to get any real oversight of Trump from this Republican Party. But hopefully we’ll find out soon, because we could really use some heroes right about now . . .
*Though Lindsey Graham has generally been one of the few Republicans willing to criticize Trump, Graham was surprisingly supportive of Trump’s decision to fire Comey. So it may be hard to get him to rally to this specific cause. But in general, Graham seems to be one of the few Republicans, along with McCain, who is very bothered by the questions surrounding Trump & Russia.