Politics

Will GOP Divergence From Trump Over White Supremacist Comments Last?

Fissure unlikely to lead to a larger GOP break from president

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has often disagreed with some of the things President Donald Trump has said but is expected to continue working with him in the interests of the GOP's legislative agenda. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Each time President Donald Trump makes an inflammatory comment, on the campaign trail or in the White House, it feels like what could be a breaking point for Republicans. But it never is.

With Trump doubling down on his comments effectively defending some white supremacists on Tuesday, could this be it?

“It could be,” said Doug Heye, a veteran GOP communicator, who’s been a longtime critic of then candidate and President Trump.

“Given not just what he said, but how it was handled; the fact that it was so easy to get right and so hard to get wrong,” Heye said.

And yet, he added, “We have been saying for two years, ‘Something’s got to give,’ and nothing’s given yet.”

Congressional Republicans made clear their disapproval of Trump’s comments Tuesday. But observers are skeptical that this represents a larger break from the president.

Although some Republicans directly criticized the president for his remarks, many side-stepped calling out Trump directly and instead only affirmed their rejection of white supremacists, bigotry and racism.

“We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan tweeted Tuesday.

Ryan’s “milquetoast” comments were indicative of many Republicans not being willing to call out Trump categorically, said Gautham Rao, assistant professor of history at American University. 

“Put simply, these denunciations strike me as GOP lawmakers trying to protect the Republican brand from being tainted by Trump’s professed sympathies for white supremacists,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institute.

Political risks

There’s the fear, which many Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have frequently acknowledged, that Trump’s antics and the Russian investigation will prove a distraction from the party’s legislative priorities.

If the GOP has control of all branches of government and can’t get anything done, members facing re-election next year have nothing to show.

At the same time, these lawmakers know they need Trump’s help to achieve their legislative priorities. That means they generally do not have strong incentives to break with Trump, Binder said.

Some voters don’t either. Heye referred to this as the “yeah, but” attitude, where voters may disapprove of Trump’s more controversial comments, but still believe in his professed agenda, whether that’s pushing for a tax overhaul or repealing the 2010 health care law. 

“If that attitude remains — we’ll start to see this when the next poll comes out — that influences members’ behavior as well,” Heye said.

Especially during a midterm election year, Republicans need their base to turn out.

“The [2018] election will be a referendum on the Trump presidency” even though he will not be on the ballot, Binder said. 

For that reason, Trump’s comments are still complicating the day-to-day lives of GOP campaigns. 

“There’s no question that’s emboldening the Democrats,” said Brian J. Walsh, a GOP Capitol Hill veteran.

“And otherwise good candidates might take a second look at running this year,” Walsh said, suggesting an initially favorable 2018 map for Republicans could end up being a disappointment.

A longer-term fear, Heye said, is if there are no immediate political consequences, and Trump — and Republicans who have stood with him — don’t learn their lesson.

He likened it to the 2013 government shutdown, which Republicans in House leadership circles referred to as the “touch the stove moment.”

“Members had to touch the stove and realize it’s hot and realize not to do that again,” Heye said. But the shutdown came more than a year before the 2014 midterms, which proved to be a good year for Republicans.

“So what lesson did we learn? None. I am concerned that that could happen,” Heye said.

Quick to forgive

When Republicans have criticized Trump in the past, most of them have then been quick to forgive — or at least forget — his actions or remarks. 

“This is a pattern that we see with the relationship between Trump and congressional Republicans going back to the campaign,” American University’s Rao said.

Republicans distanced themselves from Trump after the “Access Hollywood” recording leaked last fall, but when it became clear on election night that Trump would become president, GOP leaders were quick to fold and start moving closer to him.

That doesn’t mean the GOP is giving Trump a “blank check,” as Ryan said during the campaign, to say or do whatever he wants.

“The question if you’re part of the president’s team is: Are these problems going to get deeper over time, meaning, will these periodic attempts at distancing from the president grow more substantial?” Rao said. “Will people take longer to come back home to the president?”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.