Several veteran Democratic lawmakers were flabbergasted last week by 48 hours that were among the wildest so far of Donald Trump’s presidency. And in private conversations, they say many of their Republican colleagues share similar concerns.
Trump appears to embrace a certain amount of chaos. After all, it generates media coverage — and the president is a voracious consumer of cable television and print news. But the 48 hours between last Tuesday and Thursday caused a spike in concerns among longtime Democratic members about Trump’s mindset and competence.
“This is a continued display of unstable behavior and a continued display of tweets that cannot help America’s security,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said.
Like Durbin, most members interviewed for this story seized on Trump’s retweets of several anti-Muslim videos that either misrepresented the facts or were posted without context.
Among them was Sen. Claire McCaskill, who said she was “very concerned about our international standing when he retweets something that is that offensive and that fringe.”
“It may play to a small percentage of Americans, but around the world, for us to stay safe, we have to have allies,” the Missouri Democrat said. “And when you have the prime minister [of the United Kingdom], who is the leader of the Conservative Party in Great Britain, calling out the president of the United States. That’s just a bridge too far.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Trump’s actions called into question his leadership capabilities.
“The tweets of the right-wing videos was absolutely unconscionable,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “My concerns are growing with every one of these bizarre and bullying tweets.”
The presidential dramatics began the morning of Nov. 28 with a tweet that blew up a meeting with congressional leaders over a year-end spending measure. Trump said Democratic leaders Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi “want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes.”
He then raised the odds of a government shutdown with this declaration: “I don’t see a deal!”
Meeting with “Chuck and Nancy” today about keeping government open and working. Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes. I don’t see a deal!
That prompted Schumer and Pelosi to pull out of the meeting, saying they did not want to waste time if the president’s mind was already made up.
Later that day, Trump had harsh words for the very Democrats he will need this week to avert a shutdown during his first year in office.
The next morning, Trump retweeted the inflammatory videos, prompting a rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
He then tweeted out a call to investigate the July 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a staffer to former congressman turned MSNBC co-host Joe Scarborough. (Medical authorities said she died when she collapsed due to heart problems and struck her head.)
Publicly, with a handful of exceptions, Republican members were still standing by Trump after the chaotic 48 hours.
One was Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, who defended Trump’s tweet that started the cascading dominoes and sunk the spending bill meeting. “I think, in that case, they’re using that as an excuse not to go and tried to attract attention to it so they could use it politically,” he said of the Democrats.
Asked about the president’s retweeting of the anti-Muslim videos, Inhofe first said, “Obviously, I’m not his adviser on tweets.” He then added: “I tell myself, ‘That’s just his style.’ He can be very effective sometimes. I’ve seen it work.”
Inhofe said Trump’s meeting last Tuesday in the Capitol with Senate Republicans demonstrated his effectiveness. Nothing erratic or troubling occurred during that session when Trump urged senators to pass a sweeping tax overhaul, the Oklahoma Republican said. “He just did a very good job in calming down the opposition and bringing everyone in,” Inhofe said.
Another Trump defender is the chamber’s longest-serving Republican, Orrin G. Hatch, who traveled home to Utah with Trump on Monday.
“I’ll say this for you, he’s been one of the best presidents I’ve served under,” Hatch said in a TV interview last week. “He’s not afraid to make decisions. He’s not afraid to take on the big mouths around here.” (Trump and his team noticed Hatch’s praise, with the president tweeting a video of the remarks along with thanks for the senator.)
But several Democratic members, granted anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations, said GOP members regularly share their growing angst behind closed doors.
“They express concerns privately, absolutely,” one Democratic member said.
Another Democrat said of Republicans, “I think that they are really worried.” That second Democrat replied “yes” without hesitation when asked if GOP colleagues are growing more concerned in private, adding, “Privately, from Day One, I’ve heard serious concerns.”
When pressed, a third Democrat who has served in both chambers over the course of more than five administrations, had this to say when asked if Republicans are more worried about Trump’s mindset and competency after last week’s turbulent 48 hours: “Now what do you think? Of course, the answer is ‘yes.’”
So why are Republicans so reluctant to speak out publicly?
“I think Republicans are going to keep talking privately about the president, but I think it serves nobody to stand up and say, ‘I think the president's crazy,’” Danielle Pletka of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“He’s the president of the United States. … There is no political upside for Republicans because then the next question is, ‘OK, you think he’s crazy, you think he’s on drugs, you think there is something wrong with him?’” Pletka said. “Then the next question is, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ And the answer from them is, ‘We don't want to do anything about it.’”
If GOP members’ private concerns reach a boiling point, their options would include formally reprimanding or even impeaching Trump. And even before that, they could speak out critically, as have a few of their colleagues, such as retiring Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
When asked if Republicans privately talk about taking any action against the president, the second Democrat replied, “No.”
“There’s a lot of shoulder-shrugging,” the member said, mimicking Republicans by making such a shoulder gesture and adding that GOP members’ general attitude can be summed up this way: “What can you do?”
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One government shutdown may be narrowly averted, but another looms right around the corner. The stain of sexual misconduct at the Capitol continues to spread, and an alleged child predator is days away from possibly joining the Senate. Middle East destabilization seems assured as Congress gets its wish to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Public support dwindles daily for a loophole-encrusted, deficit-busting tax package that would be the year’s biggest legislative achievement. The push for presidential impeachment has gone far enough to necessitate procedural pushback in the House.
A week such as this one — already chockablock with headlines touching the Hill — seemed to the Republicans who run the place like an ideal time for making a bold hiding-in-plain-sight move.
And so it was that the House devoted more than two hours Wednesday to passing legislation that has no chance whatsoever of becoming law and is broadly unpopular with the electorate, but nonetheless fulfills the GOP’s commitment to doing the bidding of an extremely potent force in its political base.
The bill would effectively permit gun owners to conceal and carry their weapons anywhere in the country — which is nothing less than the “highest legislative priority” of the National Rifle Association. Under the bill, for example, people from several states who have violent felony convictions would be free to board the New York City subway with a semiautomatic pistol hidden in their overcoats.
The vote was 231-198. Only 14 Republicans, half of them facing very competitive contests for new terms next fall, voted against the NRA’s wishes. Just six Democrats, two of them expecting a tough 2018 campaign, voted for the bill.
In the debate, the blizzard of statistics about how the United States far outstrips the rest of the world in deadly gun violence was countermanded by a wave of passion about how the Second Amendment should guarantee people in the United States remain custodians of their own safety. Conservatives who profess faith in states’ rights argued that Hawaii should not be able to have concealed carry restrictions that make a transplant from Missouri feel unsafe.
Under normal circumstances, advancing the measure to certain death in the Senate, where there’s no chance it will overcome a Democratic filibuster, could be dismissed as the one of first of what will seem during the 2018 campaign season like an endless stream of “messaging votes” — designed not to advance changes in policy but to emphasize fealty to the conservative cause.
But this gun bill was something different. That’s because the poison pill language creating “reciprocity rights for gun owners” — the euphemistic NRA term for nationalizing the rules for carrying concealed guns that are in effect in the most permissive states — was combined in the House with something of a legislative unicorn: the first, albeit quite modest, gun control legislation in almost two decades that has drawn genuine bipartisan support on the Hill as well as the backing of both gun control advocacy groups and the NRA. The bill would compel federal agencies, and give incentives to state governments, to better report offenses under their jurisdictions that would prohibit offenders from buying firearms.
The aim is to shore up the reliability of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. Its limitations were laid bare last month after the massacre of more than two dozen worshipers inside a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when it came to light that the Air Force never reported to NICS the domestic violence court-martial that would have kept the assailant from buying his weapons.
The seven Republican opponents of the bill in competitive re-election contests all represent swing districts that either supported Hillary Clinton last year or came within a couple of percentage points of doing so: Ryan A. Costello, Brian Fitzpatrick and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania; Carlos Curbelo of Florida; Dan Donovan of New York; Leonard Lance of New Jersey and Peter Roskam of Illinois.
Roskam, Lance and Costello all won their current terms with the NRA’s endorsement after earning 93 percent approval ratings from the group in the previous Congress. The others had much lower scores.
A similar measure — without any concealed carry provisions attached to weigh it down — has the sponsorship of 13 Democratic and a dozen Republican senators. But its author, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, openly doubts that he can get the narrow bill passed now that senators supportive of the NRA have the opportunity to push instead for the two-pronged House measure.
The House’s concealed carry bill has already bubbled up in at least one Senate race. Both leading candidates for the GOP nomination in West Virginia, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins, are touting their support for the bill in contrast to the position of the incumbent, Democrat Joe Manchin III, who has become a leading Democratic gun control advocate in the past five years after decades on the other side of the issue.
The House bill also tells the Justice Department to study — but only study — the criminal use of “bump stocks,” the piece of equipment that transforms a semiautomatic weapon into a de facto machine gun. Such devices enabled a gunman in Las Vegas to kill 58 people and roughly 500 others at a concert in October. Legislation to outlaw bump stocks has been put on hold by GOP leaders while the Justice Department determines whether current laws allow the product to be pulled off the shelves because using them amounts to manufacturing a prohibited kind of gun.
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