Dana Milbank: On the critically endangered list: The Principled Republican

FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2018, file photo, Sen.. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., stands during a break in a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Tillis says he’ll vote to block President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration at the border with Mexico, becoming the second Senate Republican to do so. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

Washington • Researchers in the Galapagos Islands last month discovered, alive, a giant tortoise of a species long feared to be extinct.

The return of the Fernandina Giant Tortoise, last seen in 1906, gives hope that another species, also thought extinct, might yet reemerge.

I speak, of course, of the Principled Republican. The last sighting in the wild of this noble breed was in 2016.

Hopes were kindled Thursday when Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., voicing concern about the "dangerous precedent" of President Trump claiming emergency power to subvert Congress, suggested Trump reconsider. Alexander could become the decisive fourth Senate Republican to oppose Trump's power grab, guaranteeing the Senate joins the House in rejecting it.

Privately, most Republicans think Trump's action reckless, but Alexander can say so publicly because he is retiring. If Republicans did not fear Trump, they would undoubtedly side with 31 retired GOP colleagues who pleaded with them in an open letter this week not to sacrifice the Constitution "on the altar of expediency."

If heeding conscience, Republicans would have enough votes not just to reject Trump’s transgression but to override Trump’s veto. More likely, they will again retreat, more concerned about reelection than righteousness. Surely they know Trump’s actions are wrong: They called President Barack Obama a tyrant for his immigration executive action in 2014, and Obama’s policy, unlike this one, had support — in a Republican-controlled Congress.

As veteran Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., said in opposing Trump's emergency declaration this week: "Previous presidents have used the authority" to implement policies "Congress would have supported, but could not do so quickly enough. They did not invoke the authority to subvert the will of Congress."

Trump is figuring Republicans will buckle, as they have each time before. He told the faithful Sean Hannity Thursday that Republicans "put themselves at great jeopardy" by opposing him, suggesting they would be casting a "vote against border security."

He has reason to expect Republican spinelessness. In recent days, House Republicans have put on their most feckless performances of the Trump era. Though many privately oppose Trump's border "emergency" declaration, only a dozen joined Sensenbrenner in defying Trump. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., shrugged off GOP hypocrisy with a Yogi Berra-ism ("Well, times change as it moves forward"), and other Republicans followed.

Rep. Mike Simpson (Idaho) admitted "Republicans would be going nuts" if a Democratic president did this. Rep. Chris Stewart (Utah) called Trump's action a "mistake." Reps. Michael R. Turner (Ohio) and Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio) declared it a "dangerous precedent" and Rep. John Curtis (Utah) a "harmful precedent." Reps. Rob Bishop (Utah), Roger Williams (Tex.) and others voiced concerns. All then voted in support of Trump's emergency.

Seemingly nothing can shake Republicans' craven political calculation that appeasing Trump is a better course than voting their conscience.

Last week in the House, Trump's formal personal lawyer documented a web of deceit by Trump in personal and public matters — and Republicans unflinchingly defended the president. At the same time in Hanoi, Trump accepted Kim Jong Un's word that he had nothing to do with American Otto Warmbier's death — just as Trump accepted similar denials of crimes by the Saudi crown prince and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then on Thursday, a fresh economic report showed the economy falling short of Trump's forecasts, even though Trump's economic stimulus — a tax cut and spending increases — will add some $2 trillion to the deficit.

Constitutional restraint, personal responsibility, human rights, fiscal conservatism: As recently as 2015, these were Republican principles, now sadly extinct.

Nearly two dozen Senate Republicans — enough to override a veto — have expressed misgivings about Trump's emergency declaration. They have called it "a bad precedent" (Charles E. Grassley, Iowa), "a dangerous step" (John Cornyn, Texas) and "not the preferred way to go" (Rob Portman, Iowa).

Yet only three — Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) — have had the strength to announce opposition.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., now the paragon of opportunism, was surprisingly candid about his motives. "If you don't want to get re-elected, you're in the wrong business," he told the New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich, also describing his quest to be "relevant" in Trump's world and to claw his way to "influence" inside Trump's "orbit."

"There's sort of a Don Quixote aspect to this," Graham acknowledged.

How apt — except the president is a mad adventurer in service not to chivalry but to personal enrichment, while Republicans play Rocinante and Sancho Panza, his loyal nag and servant.

Surely they know what they are doing harms the country. But they pull their heads into their shells, as good as extinct.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.