The New York Times article McConnell, in Private, Doubts if Trump Can Save Presidency contains a quote that I believe is metaphorical:

“When it comes to the Senate, there’s an Article 5 understanding: An attack against one is an attack against all,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has found himself in Mr. Trump’s sights many times, invoking the NATO alliance’s mutual defense doctrine.

Is there background or precedent for the idea that a political attack by the US president on one senator is an attack on the senate as a whole? Are there counterexamples?

  • @SJuan76 The article may be about Republican senators, but I don't know if Senator Graham was aware of the context with which the NYTimes would be quoting him when he said this. He is only mentioned once in this article. I think answers that addressed the "the Senate as a whole" or "Republican Senators as a whole" would be equally welcome.
    – uhoh
    Aug 23 '17 at 7:37
  • but I don't know if Senator Graham was aware of the context with which the NYTimes would be quoting him when he said this Since he first issued the quote and the article was written after that, unless he has some kind of psychic power then no, he would have not know in which articles his quotes would be used; the only possibility of that would be if the piece was an interview.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 23 '17 at 7:49
  • @SJuan76 there is not enough information to know either way. Reporters sometimes have conversations on background or off the record, or they mention the topic of the article they are writing when they solicit a quote, or the quote could come from another context or setting. Without more information, the way I've phrased it in my comment above is careful and prudent.
    – uhoh
    Aug 23 '17 at 8:03
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    I think there may be legal precedents regarding there being (strong) limits on the executive branch's ability to take actions against Congress. This has popped up recently after some of Trump's suggestions that he might try to mess with their healthcare funding if they don't do what he wants on a healthcare bill. This may be construed as the kind of evidence you desire, and specific instances might actually be in regards to actions against a small number or just one member of Congress (making it even better for what you seem to seek). Maybe someone knows for sure... Aug 23 '17 at 13:36
  • @zibadawatimmy Thanks for the suggestion. Anything associated with the current president is just too weird to count as background or precedent. I was looking for something substantial and historical, but the current answer by RoyalCanadianBandit does even better and links all the way back to the US constitution and its anticipation of situations like this.
    – uhoh
    Aug 23 '17 at 15:34

Explanation of the quote

As the linked article notes, the background to Graham's remark is an exceptional level of conflict between President Trump and the Republican Senate caucus:

Angry phone calls and private badmouthing have devolved into open conflict, with the president threatening to oppose Republican senators who cross him, and [Senate Majority Leader] Mr. McConnell mobilizing to their defense.

Graham is referring to the NATO treaty as a metaphor for collective defense. He seems to be appealing for Republican Senators to form a united front in the face of attacks by Trump. His argument is that an attack on any individual Senator is an attack on the status of Republican Senators as a group -- and, perhaps, on the authority of the Senate itself.

In this context, "attack" means political opposition:

Mr. Trump has also continued to badger and threaten Mr. McConnell’s Senate colleagues, including Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, whose Republican primary challenger was praised by Mr. Trump last week.

or threats to use the power of the executive branch in retaliation:

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told colleagues that when Mr. Trump’s interior secretary threatened to pull back federal funding for her state, she felt boxed in and unable to vote for the health care bill.

Regardless of where one stands on the conflict between Trump and the Senators, Graham's point appears sound. It would likely be easier for Trump to impose his will on the Senators if he can use "divide and rule" tactics, instead of facing a group united in opposition to his demands.

Precedents for conflict

Under Constitutional separation of powers, Congress is a branch of government of equal status to the presidency. The Senate was designed to resist short-term changes in public opinion, and act as a check on the intentions of the President and House. James Madison wrote in 1787:

The necessity of a senate is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies, to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.

As such, conflict between President and Senate is not uncommon. Senators have traditionally been concerned to protect the status and authority of the Senate as an institution. Lyndon B Johnson (then Senate majority leader) said in 1959:

Our mandate is a mandate for confident and creative and constructive leadership -- beginning now, not two years hence [after the next Presidential election].

The current situation is unusual because:

  • The President is in conflict with a Senate majority from his own party

  • Instead of trying to negotiate and compromise, or influence public opinion in general, the President is directly attacking individual Senators (as in the examples of Flake and Murkowski above).

There is no precedent for the second point, and the Senators regard Trump's tactics as deeply improper. This accounts for some of the hostility between Trump and the Senate.

  • Thanks, can you also address the main point of the question; "Is there background or precedent for the idea that..." Are there past examples of this being the case?
    – uhoh
    Aug 23 '17 at 7:58
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    @uhoh: To an extent, this type of conflict is built into the US system by Constitutional separation of powers. There are many examples of Congress trying to assert its authority in opposition to the President. What's unusual in this case is the level of anger on both sides, and the fact that it's happening within a single political party, but the general principle is the same. Aug 23 '17 at 8:04
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    @uhoh I'm not sure what that means. I would assume that a reasonable part of the justifications for the quote would be based in separation of powers, possibly worded as "dignity of the senate" Are you suggesting it is unimportant that the attacker is president?
    – user9389
    Aug 23 '17 at 8:35
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    @uhoh: Separation of powers is relevant here. I've edited the answer to (hopefully) clarify. Aug 23 '17 at 8:40
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    Makes sense, especially in the context that if he can bully or intimidate individuals, he's essentially able to bend the body, as a whole, to his will, undermining the separation of powers doctrine. Aug 23 '17 at 14:12

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