Will Congress Make Trump Eat His Charlottesville Words?

Have you ever wondered what a joint resolution is and how it differs from an ordinary bill? Probably not, but I’ll explain it to you anyway. If it’s introduced in the Senate, it looks like this:

joint resolution – A legislative measure, designated “S. J. Res.” and numbered consecutively upon introduction, which requires the approval of both chambers and, with one exception, is submitted (just as a bill) to the president for possible signature into law. The one exception is that joint resolutions (and not bills) are used to propose constitutional amendments. These resolutions require a two-thirds affirmative vote in each house but are not submitted to the president; they become effective when ratified by three-quarters of the States.

You can use a joint resolution to do the same things as an ordinary bill, but they are typically used for things like setting up an investigatory commission, declaring war, or passing a continuing resolution to keep the government funded for some temporary period of time.

Joint resolutions are distinct from concurrent resolutions or “sense of” resolutions.

When members of the House of Representatives, the Senate or entire U.S. Congress want to send a stern message, state an opinion or just make a point, they try to pass a “sense of” resolution.

Through simple or concurrent resolutions, both houses of Congress may express formal opinions about subjects of national interest. As such these so-called “sense of” resolutions are officially known as “sense of the House,” “sense of the Senate” or “sense of the Congress” resolutions.

Simple or concurrent resolutions expressing the “sense of” the Senate, House or Congress merely express the opinion of a majority of the chamber’s members.

“Sense of” resolutions do not create law, do not require the signature of the President of the United States, and are not enforceable. Only regular bills and joint resolutions create laws.

So, keeping these distinctions in mind, please note that “Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, along with Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Johnny Isakson of Georgia” are going to introduce a joint resolution in the Senate today that will honor Charlottesville victims Heather Heyer and Virginia State Police officers Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, state that white supremacy and neo-Nazism are “hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States” and urge the Trump administration to “use all available resources to address the threats posed by those groups.”

Presumably they will succeed in getting a vote on this joint resolution and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t pass. If it is introduced in the House as well, I imagine that the bill will land on President Trump’s Resolute Desk with a thud and force him to decide whether he is willing to take the political hit that would come with either vetoing or refusing to sign it.

Forcing that decision on Trump is the entire point of this exercise. Putting Trump in that quandary is the goal, and that’s the only reason the bill is not being introduced as a concurrent or “sense of” resolution. It’s notable that there are Republican co-sponsors who are eager to shove this in Trump’s face. They actually want to humiliate their own president because they believe he deserves it. It’s their way of holding his head down in the toilet and forcing him to say the words that Nazis and Klansmen are not “good people” and that the rally in Charlottesville wasn’t carried out by people legitimately concerned about preserving the heritage of Thomas Jefferson.

If the plan works, the joint resolution will be sitting there on Trump’s desk in the Oval Office and he’ll be looking at it and thinking to himself that if he signs it he will be eating the following words from his August 15th press conference at Trump Tower:

Q    The neo-Nazis started this.  They showed up in Charlottesville to protest —

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me, excuse me.  They didn’t put themselves — and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.  You had people in that group.

Q    (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Excuse me, excuse me.  I saw the same pictures as you did.

You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.

Q    George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same.

THE PRESIDENT:  George Washington was a slave owner.  Was George Washington a slave owner?  So will George Washington now lose his status?  Are we going to take down —

Excuse me, are we going to take down statues to George Washington?  How about Thomas Jefferson?  What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?  You like him?

Q    I do love Thomas Jefferson.

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, good.  Are we going to take down the statue?  Because he was a major slave owner.  Now, are we going to take down his statue?

So you know what, it’s fine.  You’re changing history.  You’re changing culture.  And you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists — because they should be condemned totally.  But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.  Okay?  And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Virtually no one took his “total” condemnation of neo-Nazis and white nationalists seriously. If they had, there wouldn’t be Republican cosponsors of this joint resolution. Trump might have been believed if his argument wasn’t straight out of the Aryan Nation’s catechism. But it’s clear that he reads and agrees with the arguments of neo-Confederates. It’s clear enough that a lot of Republican officeholders can not only see it but are willing to condemn it.

Despite the obvious humiliation involved, a normal president faced with this kind of decision would quickly realize that they had no political choice but to sign the resolution. But Trump is a stubborn man who does not like to admit error or to be forced to do anything against his will. Moreover, he’s made a different political calculation, which is that he’s on safer ground making sure he panders to the white supremacists in his base than risking an erosion in their support. This is why he’s been so aggressive lately on immigration despite the overall unpopularity of his moves on DACA and Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his comments on Charlottesville. He won’t want to shift course or abandon a strategy that he thinks is necessary to prevent a catastrophic collapse.

On the other hand, his DACA decision might have been a deft way of selling out this racist base while appearing to appease them. He is, after all, basically calling on Congress to pass the DREAM Act. But he’s done it in a way that has brought severe condemnation from all the right people. If I’m right about what he has in mind (or, at least, the motivation behind the advice he’s following on DACA), then he is actually willing to create distance from the white supremacists provided that he has enough cover.

Thing is, though, that he won’t have any cover if he signs this resolution. It will be a very visible capitulation.

I have to praise the senators who came up with this idea. It’s one of the better ideas I’ve seen come out of Congress in recent memory.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.