Republicans will shield Trump forever, if that’s the only way to keep packing the courts with right-wing judges
After Donald Trump's eventful Monday — in which our president held a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, endorsed Putin's denials that his military committed crimes to meddle in the 2016 election, and floated conspiracy theories to bolster this obvious lie — the spotlight turned, once again, to congressional Republicans. How, many in the media wondered, could so many Republicans, who claim to abhor a murderous dictator like Putin, stand idly by while the president openly colluded with Putin to cover up Russia's criminal assault on our democracy? Why, instead of holding Trump accountable for his behavior, are Republicans actively covering up for Trump by holding kangaroo-court hearings in Congress that are based on conspiracy theories and only serve to discredit the investigation into Trump's possible Russian collusion?
Faced with these questions, Republicans simply doubled down on the cover-up, holding a press conference in which Trump meekly read from a prepared statement pretending that he had misspoken during his appearance with Putin, a claim that is clearly false to anyone who actually watched the event unfold.
At a certain point, the fierce loyalty to Trump is hard to fathom, in no small part because there's no doubt he would stab any and every Republican politician in the back if it suited his own ends. But also because most Republicans are not complete idiots, and must understand how tying themselves to such a disastrous leader will hurt them in the long run, as well.
Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.
To understand why Republicans are continuing to embarrass themselves this way, it helps to look at what was happening in the Senate the very same afternoon that Trump was reading his fake walk-back of his deep Putin love. While most of the press was, understandably, watching Trump do a bad job of feigning disapproval of Russia's action, the Senate decided to move forward with the confirmationof a far-right radical named Andrew Oldham to sit on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. On Wednesday afternoon, by a 50-49 vote, he was confirmed.
The move means that Trump will set the record, at 23, for the largest number of appeals court judges seated by a president in his first two years of office. It's this project, turning the federal judiciary into a bastion of right-wing radicalism, that is causing Republicans to not only accept but actively cover for Trump's apparent betrayal of the country.
“Mitch McConnell kept hundreds of vacant judicial seats open under President Barack Obama so the Senate Republicans could fill those seats," Kristine Lucius of Alliance for Justice told Salon. "Under McConnell and Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, the record-breaking pace of hearings, committee votes and floor votes, and utter disregard for Senate norms and traditions on nominees, has been shameful."
If they can capture the judiciary, Republicans realize, it won't much matter if the voters turn against them. Not only will they be able to enact their agenda through the courts, they will also be able to depend on those judges to support gerrymandering and other vote-suppression efforts that may well prevent the voters from kicking them out in the first place.
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is not about to let Trump's scandals slow down the pace at which he's packing the courts, He has made it clear that he intends to seat Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court by Oct. 1. While McConnell claims the rush is about the court schedule, it's just as likely that it's about the election calendar. He wants to secure Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment before Democrats perhaps gain power in Congress this November and begin throwing up obstacles between a president who is openly betraying his country and his ability to appoint judges.
As the Oldham vote Tuesday shows, McConnell has plenty to sweat about. Both votes ended up along strict party lines, 50-49, with all Democrats (and both Senate independents) voting no and Sen. John McCain, who is battling brain cancer, abstaining. While the Senate electoral map does not look good for Democrats this year, that close call also shows that it will take very little to tip the balance of power.
"Trump is trying to take over the federal courts by nominating young extremists who are unfit to serve impartially," Lucius said. Oldham is one of the judges Alliance for Justice has so identified, and for good reason.
As Salon reported in May, Oldham has a long history of views that fall well outside the judicial mainstream, particularly around the legitimacy of the entire bureaucracy of the federal government. In particular, Oldham has argued that "the entire existence of this edifice of administrative law is constitutionally suspect," and that agencies like the IRS, the EPA and the entire Department of Labor are illegal and illegitimate organizations.
But even though Oldham has argued against the government having power to regulate pollution or tax incomes, he is very enthusiastic about one kind of business regulation: Medically unnecessary regulations meant to shut down safe, legal abortion clinics. As deputy solicitor general of Texas, Oldham vigorously defended a seriesof regulations, eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, that were clearly meant not to improve the quality of abortion services but to prevent women from accessing safe abortion altogether.
"Oldham’s track records proves time and time again that he will be a foot soldier for the anti-choice movement’s agenda, which includes overturning and gutting Roe v. Wade and criminalizing abortion," Adrienne Kimmell of NARAL said in an emailed statement.
The unanimity of Republicans behind both voting for a radical right-wing judge and refusing to hold Trump accountable are deeply intertwined. Republicans appear to be trying to buy time, by deflecting efforts to hold Trump accountable, so they can cram as many far-right conservatives onto the federal bench as possible. And then whatever happens to Trump or their own electoral futures, they can rest assured that it really doesn't matter, as the courts will be there to gut Democratic efforts to pass progressive legislation.
"These judges hold in their hands the future of equal justice in this country," Todd Cox of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a statement, arguing that the "Senate must slow down the confirmation process." It won't, of course. This power to dismantle social progress and short-circuit equal rights is exactly why Republicans are willing to overlook anything Trump does, no matter how vile.