I’ve tried to imagine the moment this week when President Donald Trump told House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a group of invited congressional leadership that the only reason he lost the popular vote was because three to five million undocumented immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton.
Or when he said golfer Berhnard Langer, whom Trump described as a friend, had been turned away from voting in Florida, while people who appeared to be Latin American were allowed to vote. (Langer later said he never tried to vote, never told Trump that story, and is not a friend of Trump’s.)
Did Ryan and McConnell just ignore the man talking nonsense in hopes that the president, who occupies the same body, would come back soon? Did they share panicked glances, like brothers at a dinner table who know dad’s not OK anymore?
Ryan has always been one of the most principled conservatives in Washington, while McConnell knows more than anybody how to win fights, jam enemies and spend political capital for maximum results. As Trump regaled them with an Election Day fish tale that made no sense (he won, after all) and just wasn’t true, what could they have possibly done?
Crossing the line
I’d like to think somebody in the room objected to the assertion, not because they wanted to argue the finer points of the election, but because it is essential with this White House to know where congressional Republicans are going to draw a line with Trump.
Will they respectfully correct facts when Trump is wrong? Will they stand up for conservative principles when Trump walks over them? Will they pay for his agenda when it busts the budget? Will they support his foreign policy if they don’t believe in it? Where is their red line with Trump?
That line hasn’t been near any of Trump’s Cabinet nominees so far, several of whom revealed that they had broken a series of employment, tax, and disclosure laws that have torpedoed previous candidates.
Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for Commerce secretary, had employed an undocumented immigrant in his home for many years. Meh. South Carolina GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s nominee to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget, didn’t pay “nanny taxes” for his nanny. Nobody’s perfect!
Treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin, who blamed the complicated paperwork for failing to disclose $100 million worth of real estate holdings, is well on his way to confirmation. As is Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s choice to run the Department of Health and Human Services, who regularly invested in companies his committees affected.
Republican senators are the only real check on Trump’s executive branch leadership, but the vetting process of his nominees has been largely a shoulder shrug and a handshake.
House Republicans raised roughly the same same amount of concern this week when Trump signed his executive order to immediately construct a wall on the southern border. Trump put the price tag at $15 billion to $20 billion, but Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd, whose district spans about 800 miles of the border, estimated it at closer to $40 billion. No matter the price, Speaker Ryan told reporters at the Republican retreat in Philadelphia that the GOP is ready to pay for it.
Over the course of his first full week in office, Trump also announced he will withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which most Republicans supported), sparked a diplomatic crisis with Mexico, scheduled a weekend phone call with Russia, threatened a 20-percent import tax on Mexican goods, and used a raft of executive orders, which Republicans fumed over in the Obama era, to institute sweeping policy changes on everything from immigration to federal hiring and oil and gas development.
Trump also said he believes torture may work and reopened the possibility that the CIA could use “black sites.”
A steal, yet a win
The response to all of that from Republican leaders has been the same as their response following their meeting when Trump claimed that the election he won had, in fact, been stolen from him by “illegals” — smiles, public support, and an open question about how far afield they’ll let Trump go without doing anything about it.
It’s hard to know what any president’s relationship with the Hill will be like this early in an administration. It’s also easy to see that Ryan and McConnell see the benefits to staying the course with Trump. He’ll name a Supreme Court nominee next week and it will almost certainly please conservatives. He’s promising massive tax cuts and an overhaul of regulations, more results Republican voters will love.
But what will they do if Trump says or does something that could hurt the country or even endanger it? It would assure all Americans to know that there is a line that GOP leaders wouldn’t let anyone cross, even a Republican president. They lead a co-equal branch of government to Trump’s White House. Will they be his equal partners or just his pawns?
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.