The Cowardly Ben Sasse

Senator Ben Sasse is worried about the Constitution and defending America's democratic institutions ... starting now

With only hours to go before President Donald Trump leaves office, Republicans senators are taking the predictable path of beginning to deny responsibility for their role in enabling the political nightmare of the past four years.

It seems only fitting that the ideologically supple Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is one of the loudest in planting his deflection flag. This week he penned an article for the Atlantic that laid out the dangers represented by the QAnon conspiracy theory. According to Sasse, the movement and its role in influencing those who attacked the Capitol last week represent “the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice. When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them.”

Sasse is not wrong about QAnon. It is a dangerous conspiracy theory that the FBI has said represents a significant domestic terrorism threat. Sasse, however, is an imperfect messenger to deliver this warning. For four years he’s had the opportunity to defend the Constitution and the nation’s democratic institutions. Instead, he’s consistently asked the question “what is best politically for Ben Sasse” and then acted accordingly.

Back in 2015, when Trump first emerged out of the primordial ooze of the conservative fever swamp Sasse was a consistent and vocal critic. After Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country Sasse took to the senate floor to denounce “a megalomaniac strongman ... screaming about travel bans and deportation." He used his Twitter feed to regularly attack Trump and to point out his hypocrisies, even bringing up the fact that he had bragged about affairs with married women. “Have you repented?” Sasse asked, “To harmed children & spouses? Do you think it matters?” He compared Trump to David Duke and declared “America doesn’t need a strongman. We need a Constitution.”

Sasse refused to attend the 2016 Republican National Convention and did not offer Trump his endorsement in the presidential election.

Even after Trump became president Sasse remained a persistent critic. He called the president’s trade war with China “nuts” and defended the Mueller investigation. He was lauded in a 2018 Politico profile for being one of the few “Never Trumpers” to keep up his criticism of the president and there was even speculation that he might launch a long-shot primary campaign against the sitting president.

But then in early 2019 Sasse’s attitude toward the president evolved. After decrying Trump's call for a national emergency on the US-Mexico border as a power grab that violated constitutional principles he voted a month later to uphold the order. In general, Sasse kept his criticisms of Trump to himself instead aiming most of his ire at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What changed? Sasse was up for reelection in 2020 and needed to fend off a primary challenge from an Always Trump Republican who was critical of Sasse’s lack of fealty to the president.

Rather than serve as a check on Trump, Sasse became yet another GOP enabler. During last year’s impeachment trial, he tut-tutted about Trump’s actions but ultimately took the position that removing Trump from office “would be setting America on fire when what we should be doing is trying to figure out how to shore up public trust.”

A man who had worried about the presidency being taken over by a “strongman” argued that the president had initially taken poor advice from former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to delay military aid to Ukraine, but then followed the good advice of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in finally releasing that aid, telling reporters. “I think that’s what happened.”

Ben Sasse is a smart guy. He went to Harvard and got a doctorate from Yale. He’s been a university president. He knows quite well that’s not what happened.

If the Senate had been able to hear witnesses in the impeachment trial including former national security advisor John Bolton, Sasse would have learned that Trump wasn’t acting under poor counsel - he was looking out for his political well-being. But Sasse joined with the majority of Senate Republicans in not allowing witnesses to testify in the trial.

Still even if Sasse’s basic argument is true — that the president initially tried to use military aid a tool for pressuring Ukraine — is this behavior excused because eventually he did the right thing, particularly since it came after the effort to strong arm the Ukrainian president had become public. Is that how one rebuilds public trust?

For Sasse, however, the political spade work had paid off. Trump offered a full-throated endorsement on Twitter of his reelection bid and Sasse dutifully kept his mouth shut throughout much of 2020.

As Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin pointed out in October, Sasse remained mum as Trump badly mishandled the coronavirus pandemic. He said nothing as Trump bad-mouthed Dr. Anthony Fauci. He didn’t speak out against Trump’s COVID misinformation or criticized the lack of health precautions being taken by the president and his aides.

The man who loves to preach about the importance of defending America’s democratic institutions, and who has even published a book titled “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” was an enthusiastic supporter of the president’s efforts to ram through Amy Coney Barret’s nomination to the Supreme Court only weeks before Election Day. That this might undercut public support for the nation’s highest court and be counter-productive in helping America “heal” seemed lost on Sasse.

Four years after rejecting Trump’s bid for the White House he offered the president his endorsement for reelection.

Then in October, a phone call he held with constituents was leaked to the Washington Examiner. In it Sasse took Trump to task for “the way he kisses dictators’ butts,” for flirting with white supremacists, mocking evangelicals, and treating the presidency like a business opportunity.

Surely it was coincidence that with less than a month until Election Day, and Sasse sailing to reelection against an underfunded Democratic challenger, these comments were “leaked” to a prominent conservative newspaper in Washington. Sasse had apparently now determined that it was safe to criticize the president again.

Since then Sasse has again become a boisterous critic of the president’s efforts to undo the election, even acknowledging Joe Biden’s victory in November. He’s now gone so far as to signal openness to convicting Trump when the Senate takes up a second set of articles of impeachment against him. The political optimist might suggest that Sasse has seen the light and that he’s taking a more enlightened position than his colleagues Senator Hawley and Senator Cruz. The cynic would be more inclined to argue that he’s thinking about his political ambitions and positioning himself to run for president in 2024 as the anti-QAnon candidate.

Sasse’s constant flip-flops are nearly as odious as the brazen opportunism of Hawley and Cruz. It’s merely opportunism by a different name, cloaked in the gauzy rhetoric of American ideals. The Nebraska Senator is that most loathsome of political figures: a person who preaches the virtues of democracy and political compromise and then violates those words the moment it’s in his political interest to do so.

Indeed, his assault this week on QAnon and his assertion that “until last week, many party leaders and consultants thought they could preach the Constitution while winking at QAnon,” is a high-browed effort at deflection. Rather than focus on the enabling of Trump and his degradation of the Constitution the Nebraska Senator has picked a far easier target - unhinged conspiracy theorists and Capitol Hill rioters.

According to Sasse, there are three critical steps that must be taken to hold back the QAnon crazies: end “America’s junk-food media diet”; prevent “America’s institutional collapse”; and reverse “America’s loss of meaning.” But what’s missing from these targets is himself and his fellow Republicans who spent four years doing nothing to stop Trump’s assault on America’s democratic institutions. Nowhere in Sasse’s cri de cœur is a moment of introspection, which would have given his argument that much more validity.

“If the GOP is to have a future outside the fever dreams of internet trolls,” writes Sasse, “we have to call out falsehoods and conspiracy theories unequivocally. We have to repudiate people who peddle those lies.” It is good advice, but it is hollow coming from a man who spent the last four years putting his political interests above the best interests of the country.