On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump pledged over and over to “drain the swamp,” promising to gut what he said was a gridlocked Washington political establishment.
His supporters chanted the catchy slogan at rallies and kept doing so at Trump events even after the reality television figure moved into the White House.
Trump offered few details on how he would do the draining, and faced criticism for stocking his Cabinet and administration with many of the same political types he had disavowed.
But the retirements of several House and Senate Republicans might be having the same effect, by clearing out some of the more familiar characters in Washington.
Some members say their decision to leave Congress is in part due to frustrations with an administration belonging to their own party. Others say politics has gotten too ugly.
When Rep. Charlie Dent announced in September he would not seek re-election, he told reporters he had been thinking about it since the 2013 government shutdown.
But the Pennsylvania Republican also acknowledged a “political realignment that’s occurring right under our feet” that he suspects will affect both Republicans and Democrats.
On a recent walk back to his office in the Rayburn House Office Building, Dent said his frustrations with Congress predated Trump, but he also acknowledged things are more intense under this administration.
“Obviously the president has a management style that has brought a lot of dysfunction and disorder and chaos to the White House,” Dent said. “That has made enacting a legislative agenda much harder.”
Dent’s comment came just days after Trump traded insults with Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who announced recently he would not seek re-election.
After Trump tweeted that Corker had “begged” for his endorsement and blamed him for what he called a “horrendous” Iran deal, the Tennessee Republican hit back — tweeting it was “a shame the White House has become an adult day care center.”
Corker then told The New York Times the president of his own party alarmed him and that irresponsible threats could send the country into World War III.
When asked to weigh in, Dent’s voice became firm.
“I’m glad Sen. Corker brought a voice to that issue,” Dent said. “He says publicly what people say privately, and we’ve had, in my view, we’ve had far too many of these emperor-has-no-clothes moments.”
Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, an early supporter of Trump and frequent surrogate for him on TV who also served on his transition team, announced this month she would run for Corker’s seat.
In her announcement video, Blackburn invoked similar sentiments Trump struck on the campaign trail, declaring that the Senate was “totally dysfunctional.”
“I’m a hardcore, card-carrying conservative,” Blackburn said. “I’m politically incorrect and proud of it.”
Leaders on edge
Rep. Tom Cole said he’s been told there is an effort to get Trump surrogates to run for House and Senate seats. But the Oklahoma Republican doubted the efforts would deliver results.
“I think it’s going to be less successful than most people might think or than those behind it might think,” Cole said. “I don’t think you can parachute candidates in there. They need to be somebody that’s sort of indigenous, if you will, in the area.”
Convoluting matters further, Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has launched what he called a “season of war against a GOP establishment,” in which he is targeting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Despite presenting a unified front with the Kentucky Republican in the Rose Garden last week, Trump has had his own choice words for McConnell after the Senate narrowly failed to pass health care bills — sinking long-held campaign promises by the GOP.
Without explicitly acknowledging if or how involved he is in Senate campaigns that would knock off incumbents in favor of his allies, Trump said he understood Bannon’s frustrations but also sang praises for some Senate Republicans.
“I know how he feels,” Trump said of Bannon. “Depends on who you’re talking about. There are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves. But most of them — I tell you what, I know the Republican senators; most of them are really, really great people that want to work hard, and they want to do a great thing for the American public.”
McConnell has said the Republican strategy in the 2018 midterms is to support incumbents and candidates who can win general election battles. The party would not change its approach just because of Bannon’s efforts to push more conservative candidates, McConnell said.
Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus who helped negotiate several iterations of health care bills between Congress and the administration, said it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a president to weigh in on House and Senate elections even this early in his term.
“All presidents have their preference in those that they don’t want and normally they’re trying to fix it behind the scenes,” the North Carolina Republican said. “At least this one comes out and says what [he] means.”
Rep. Chris Collins, an ally and early Trump backer, denied that some of the president’s supporters were rooting for Senate Republican primary challengers.
“Oh no, no, no, no, no — never,” the New York Republican said, adding that the pressure was on Congress to pass tax legislation before the end of the year. “Electing different people a year from now — it’s too late.”
Cole, who is running for re-election, said serving in Congress today was far more difficult than when he arrived in 2002.
“The pressures are great. There’s a certain amount of frustration at having the majority and yet having something like repeal and replace not happen for you,” Cole said. “The politics is a little nasty.”
Trump is not necessarily at the center of that, he said.
“I don’t think he’s a factor so much as he’s a symptom of the challenge,” Cole said. “He won as an outsider. He won coming up here to shake things up — and that’s a good thing. That’s a message.”
But Cole also said exchanges like the one between Corker and Trump didn’t help. In such feuds, the president goes after members who are capable of stalling his agenda.
“This kind of exchange does nothing good for the country, does nothing good for the party and it doesn’t help us accomplish anything,” Cole said.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.