Republican lawmakers are increasingly breaking with Donald Trump — through critical words and high-profile votes — but White House officials contend the president still has a grip on his party mates on Capitol Hill.
The Senate floor in recent weeks has become ground zero for GOP members jumping out of line. With a series of national security and government spending speeches and vote results, the president’s party has issued a string of stinging blows after nearly two years of mostly sticking with and defending him.
But Republican members have also sounded off in hallways, television interviews, tweets and statements — collectively suggesting that what has been a GOP dam of support for Trump is showing its first cracks, even if it might not be ready to burst.
Perhaps the most surprising example came from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican introduced an amendment to a Middle East policy measure last week that would acknowledge that “al Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates in Syria and Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to us here at home.”
Experts called that measure a rare GOP rebuke of the Republican president because Trump in recent days has doubled down on his stances that the Islamic State’s “caliphate will soon be destroyed” and peace talks with Taliban leaders could soon lead to the full withdrawal of U.S. military troops from Afghanistan.
McConnell went out of his way to note on the floor that “it is not a partisan amendment,” describing it as “an opportunity for senators to go on the record about what the United States should be doing in Syria and Afghanistan.” It was also a chance for his own GOP members in competitive races during the 2020 cycle to, in his words, “go on the record” in breaking with the party’s “America first” commander in chief who touts himself as “a nationalist.”
“I believe the threats remain,” McConnell said Thursday, rebuking Trump without naming him. “ISIS and al Qaeda have yet to be defeated. And American national security interests require continued commitment to our missions there.”
Other GOP senators agreed, with Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah siding with Trump’s hand-picked intelligence chiefs last week after the president lashed out at their testimony contradicting his foreign and national security policies.
“I have full confidence in our intelligence community and its leadership. They are highly sophisticated and capable, and I take them at their word,” Romney said. “Precipitous withdrawal from Syria would put our allies at risk and be detrimental to our allies in the region.”
Almost every Republican senator voted for the McConnell reproval of the president. Three GOP senators voted against it, and seven opted against voting. Over 40 Senate Republicans voted “aye,” but White House officials are shrugging off the latest example of cracks in the dam.
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‘We’re all good’
“No,” one senior White House official said when asked if the president is concerned he’s losing support, especially from GOP senators. “We’re all good when it comes to our people.”
The senior official noted that most of the recent criticism came as some GOP members — especially those gearing up for re-election fights — grew antsy as 800,000 federal workers missed two paychecks in January because of the 35-day shutdown. Another reason, White House aides have concluded, is simply due to the nature of the Senate, where its members are known for having high opinions of themselves.
“The Senate is a little more independent by nature. So, no, no worries here,” said the senior official, granted anonymity to be candid.
G. William Hoagland, a former top aide to former Senate GOP leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, sees cracks in the GOP-Trump alliance.
“I think the straw that broke the back was the president’s first signing on with McConnell’s continuing resolution proposal back in December that would have avoided at least through February any government shutdown, and then be undercut by conservative radio and TV talk show hosts,” Hoagland said, referring to Trump reversing course after conservative voices like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh demanded the president insist on border wall funding. “I believe that is why McConnell took somewhat of a back seat during the shutdown.”
“Preceding the shutdown was the Syrian troop withdrawal decision and saying ISIS has been defeated with what appears to have been little consultation with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee members and Lindsey Graham in particular — which led to the vote,” he added.
Indeed, there are ample examples beyond McConnell’s amendment and the handful of Republican senators who recently crossed the aisle and supported a Democratic stopgap measure that would have ended the shutdown before Trump bowed to pressure and reopened the shuttered agencies.
Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa penned an op-ed this week calling on the administration to lift aluminum and steel tariffs on Canada and Mexico before asking Congress to approve Trump’s United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which would replace NAFTA. And House Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady of Texas said the same on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota this week told reporters he often wishes Trump would hold off on tweeting about sensitive matters. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois was critical of the government shutdown Trump triggered over his demand for border wall funding, calling it “idiotic” and adding, “The American people deserve far better from those of us that are elected to represent 750,000 people — to be adults, to be grown-ups, to understand that we’re not going to get our way.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott last year blocked a vote on Trump’s nomination of Thomas Farr to a federal judgeship in North Carolina over allegations of racism. Scott took a meeting last week with the former nominee — the nomination expired with the last Congress, but White House officials still want to revive it. The senator still opposes Farr.
According to a McClatchy report, Scott expressed frustration with Trump’s insistence. “Why they have chosen to expend so much energy on this particular nomination I do not know, but what I do know is they have not spent anywhere near as much time on true racial reconciliation efforts ... or working to move our party together towards a stronger, more unified future,” he said.
Trump’s moves have frustrated Republican members as he increasingly plays to his conservative base, which loudly cheers his “America first” rhetoric on ending overseas conflicts, pushing China to the brink of an all-out trade war and being tough on allies like Mexico and Canada over a shared perception they have given the U.S. a raw deal.
“The one thing the guy has never done is try to expand his base or his support,” said one Republican pollster. “But Republican senators don’t think like that because theirs are statewide races. What that means is he’s never had as tight a grip on them as he might have thought. That’s what we’re seeing.”
Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, pointed to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll that he said “indicates that there are cracks in Trump’s Republican armor” that could make the president vulnerable next year.
“A part of the vaunted GOP base has bailed on the president. One out of every three Republicans (32 percent) would support a challenger to the president’s re-nomination. Two-thirds (65 percent) of the GOP electorate still supports Trump’s re-nomination, so it would be tough for Romney or [former Ohio Gov.] John Kasich to deny the incumbent the GOP nod,” Bannon said in an email.
“But the internal anti-Trump sentiment does mean many Republicans would be open to voting against Trump in November 2020, either for a Democrat or for an independent Kasich candidacy,” Bannon continued. “There’s a lot of talk about the danger that a [former Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz independent run could cause the eventual Democratic nominee. But Kasich’s independent candidacy could cause even bigger problems for the president.”
What Republican and Democratic insiders agree on is, as Hoagland put it, “what was boiling under the surface for many Republicans on so many issues has now come to the surface.”