Washington has always been driven by loyalties. Staffers are expected to be loyal to their bosses. Their bosses are expected to be loyal to their districts and states. And the president, as the chief executive, is expected to be loyal to the country above all else.
But expectations in D.C. are rarely realities and in Donald Trump’s worldview, loyalty is a special brand of currency.
So it’s no surprise that the high drama that unfolded in Washington on Tuesday as the Senate voted to open debate on health care reform was as much a lesson in loyalties as it was a debate on health care policy, as the future of Obamacare hung on a single vote and the future of Trump’s presidency continued to be dragged down by crises of his own construction.
One brand of loyalty was on display from Republican senators, for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As the day began on Tuesday, McConnell had no bill, no CBO score, and almost no leverage over senators. McConnell had to lean on his holdouts hard.
He told Rand Paul he’d get his “repeal-only” vote. He worked Sen. Ron Johnson up to the last minute into the ‘yea’ column with 48 on the board. All he really had in his column was an argument that something would be better than nothing, and his caucus’ loyalty to him as their leader. For most of them in the end, that was enough.
Another kind of loyalty was on display Tuesday from Sen. John McCain, a man whose life has been defined at so many points by his decision to stay with his own men in the fight again and again. Who would have blamed McCain if he had chosen to remain in Arizona a week after brain surgery over the chance to take an unsavory vote, even if it did matter immensely to his party?
Was it loyalty to Trump that brought McCain back?
Or Mitch McConnell?
McCain has forged deep friendships in Washington, but loyalty to party leaders has never been his thing.
McCain made it clear he was there for the Senate itself, and for the country. He had come — with a scar still fresh from surgery above his eye — to use what might be his last, best chance to implore the senators of both parties to use the institution to protect the nation, even if it means opposing a president from their own party.
“This place is important. The work we do is important,” McCain said. “Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates. We are his equal.”
McCain’s fellow senators gave him a standing ovation, but further down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump heard none of it.
Instead, the president was taking questions in the Rose Garden about Attorney General Jeff Sessions — one of the Senate’s own — until Trump picked him for his Cabinet. Trump has been systematically humiliating Sessions since he recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Even the Boy Scouts got an earful from the president Monday night about New York cocktail parties, yachts, the Boy Scout pledge and, of course, loyalty.
“As the Scout law says, ‘A Scout is trustworthy, loyal,’” the president said, adding an apparent blurb about Sessions. “We could use some more loyalty, I can tell you that.”
Even though Sessions was the first senator to endorse the long-shot billionaire, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that was just about crowd size.
“He was a senator, he looks at 40,000 people and he probably says, ’What do I have to lose?’ And he endorsed me,” Trump said. “So it’s not like a great loyal thing about the endorsement. I’m very disappointed in Jeff Sessions.”
But by now picking a fight with Sessions, the president may inadvertently be picking a fight with Sessions’ former colleagues. And it’s a fight he may not win.
Hours after he mocked Sessions in front of the Boy Scouts, several GOP senators were quick to come to Sessions’ defense.
Sen. Lindsey Graham called Sessions “one of the most decent people I’ve ever met in my political life.”
Sen. Richard Shelby, from Sessions’ home state of Alabama, called Sessions “a man of integrity, loyalty, and extraordinary character.”
Where loyalty lies
In reality, Sessions has been loyal to Trump. But his first loyalty up to this point seems to have been to the Constitution, not to the president.
Senate Republicans have been loyal, too. But so far most of them have been loyal to McConnell, and when pressed, some have been loyal to their own chances of re-election, which looks a lot like loyalty to Trump, but isn’t.
Many have also risen above the chaos in Washington today and been exceedingly loyal to the country. Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, comes to mind. And so, too, does John McCain.
But will they be loyal to the president, especially after he has taken to calling them “the Republicans,” and humiliating, bullying and threatening them to get his way?
Don’t count on it, especially if his poll numbers fall below their own.
Personal loyalty for the president has always been Trump’s measure of any man, but it has never been reciprocal. He’s about to find out that in Washington, everyone has loyalties — to their party, to their leaders, to themselves.
But they’ve all taken an oath to be loyal to the country above all else, including the president. Some will even live up to that oath and there’s nothing he can say, do, or tweet to change that.
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.