He’s violating one of the basic rules of populism: Establishment transparency good, populist transparency bad. (There’s a corresponding rule of establishmentarianism. Can you guess what it is?)
Anti-Trumpers are forever knocking him for being all talk and no action when it comes to Trump. Sure, he’ll put out a statement taking a potshot at POTUS over his latest tweet or whatever, but when does he ever use his power as a legislator to try to check him? He votes with Trump something like 95 percent of the time. If he’s serious about his mission to improve the quality of American government, let’s see some action.
So he’s acting, introducing a series of ethics bills in the Senate today targeting notable lapses from both parties. A running theme of Sasse’s political message is “a pox on both their houses” and so too in this case. Quote: “The [Democrats] who in 2016 didn’t care about draining the swamp are clamoring about it now, while the [Republicans] who promised to drain the swamp have conveniently forgotten about it.”
We’re going to prohibit Cabinet members and their immediate family from soliciting donations from foreign sources. If you hold one of the highest and most sensitive positions in the executive branch, there should not be any question about who you’re working for. There should not be any temptation to exploit your office for financial gain. No more Clintons using high office to line their own pockets.
We’re going to require that presidential and vice-presidential candidates’ tax returns are disclosed. In 2016, Donald Trump became the first major party nominee in modern American history not to release his tax returns. He spent the campaign claiming he was going to release them, and then the moment he was elected he declared that “nobody cares” and moved on. Every presidential nominee prior to 2016 understood that voters deserve basic information about the financial situation of their potential chief executive. We’re going to make sure they can get it…
We’re going to prevent members of Congress from abusing their access to information and influence, by prohibiting them from buying or selling stocks during their time in office. Voters should not have to ask whether their congressman supported a piece of legislation because it was good for his personal investment portfolio. Prohibiting them from buying and selling stocks is an easy way to cut down on that temptation. Members of Congress are supposed to do what’s best for their constituents, not their 401K.
There are provisions targeting the rotating door between Congress and lobbying too. As you’ll see below, Jake Tapper had him on yesterday to discuss it and asked a good question: Uh, what makes you think anyone in Congress except you would vote for any of this? I’d follow up with a related question: What makes Sasse think McConnell would even bring these bills to the floor, especially before November? The last thing the party leadership wants right now is a slapfight between Trump and Senate Republicans over the president’s tax returns, knowing that it risks alienating Trump voters whom they need to turn out for them this fall. There are three possible outcomes in Congress, none of them good for the GOP: (1) Senate Republicans block Sasse’s bills, producing “SENATE GOP LEAVES SWAMP UNDRAINED” headlines; (2) the bill passes the Senate but dies in the House, producing “HOUSE GOP LEAVES SWAMP UNDRAINED” headlines; or (3) the bill passes both houses and ends up being vetoed by Trump, producing “TRUMP LEAVES SWAMP UNDRAINED” headlines.
There’s a fourth possibility, I suppose, in which Trump actually signs the bill. But how likely is that? He’s going to suddenly show his cards on his taxes just a few months before the 2020 push begins in earnest? C’mon.
Sasse knows all of this. It’s unusual for a senator from the majority party to introduce a package like this, particularly one that would discomfit a president from his own party, knowing how it would tie the other members of his caucus up in knots if it reached the floor. (Imagine Ted Cruz, an ostentatious populist, trying to figure out whether to vote for or against a bill that would force Trump to reveal his tax returns a month before the big vote in Texas.) He’s doing it because he really is an “independent conservative” and man of principle — but also because he understands that it’s effectively a symbolic gesture, that the bills are going nowhere. That’s why I try not to follow the lead of other anti-Trumpers in jabbing at him for inaction in the Senate. What is it you want him to do, exactly, as the first-term junior senator from Nebraska who has maybe half a dozen other Republicans in the chamber willing to stand up to Trump along with him? You think Mitch McConnell is going to let Ben Sasse hijack his majority to lead an anti-Trump crusade that would split the party? Are you mad?
If you’re of the opinion that Sasse is eyeing a 2020 primary challenge to Trump, though, today’s news will do nothing to convince you otherwise. This is exactly the sort of platform he’d put together if he were thinking of that. He’d run as a loud-and-proud conservative, sure, but that wouldn’t do much to sting Trump in a primary. Cruz gave him the strongest possible dose of the same thing in 2016, after all, and never really threatened Trump’s grip on the nomination. The right doesn’t care about conservatism. It might, however, sting POTUS if it can be demonstrated at length on the trail that his “drain the swamp” message in 2016 was a populist scam, that Trump himself is the ultimate swamp creature. Sasse wouldn’t win the primary or even come close but no one challenges a sitting president in a primary to win. You do it to prove a point. Sasse might be thinking that the best thing he can do for the conservative movement is show that the guy who usurped it is a fraud, to force his fans to think hard about what direction the party should take post-Trump.