Several veteran Democratic lawmakers were flabbergasted last week by 48 hours that were among the wildest so far of Donald Trump’s presidency. And in private conversations, they say many of their Republican colleagues share similar concerns.
Trump appears to embrace a certain amount of chaos. After all, it generates media coverage — and the president is a voracious consumer of cable television and print news. But the 48 hours between last Tuesday and Thursday caused a spike in concerns among longtime Democratic members about Trump’s mindset and competence.
“This is a continued display of unstable behavior and a continued display of tweets that cannot help America’s security,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said.
Like Durbin, most members interviewed for this story seized on Trump’s retweets of several anti-Muslim videos that either misrepresented the facts or were posted without context.
Among them was Sen. Claire McCaskill, who said she was “very concerned about our international standing when he retweets something that is that offensive and that fringe.”
“It may play to a small percentage of Americans, but around the world, for us to stay safe, we have to have allies,” the Missouri Democrat said. “And when you have the prime minister [of the United Kingdom], who is the leader of the Conservative Party in Great Britain, calling out the president of the United States. That’s just a bridge too far.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Trump’s actions called into question his leadership capabilities.
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“The tweets of the right-wing videos was absolutely unconscionable,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “My concerns are growing with every one of these bizarre and bullying tweets.”
The presidential dramatics began the morning of Nov. 28 with a tweet that blew up a meeting with congressional leaders over a year-end spending measure. Trump said Democratic leaders Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi “want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes.”
He then raised the odds of a government shutdown with this declaration: “I don’t see a deal!”
Meeting with “Chuck and Nancy” today about keeping government open and working. Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes. I don’t see a deal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 28, 2017
That prompted Schumer and Pelosi to pull out of the meeting, saying they did not want to waste time if the president’s mind was already made up.
Later that day, Trump had harsh words for the very Democrats he will need this week to avert a shutdown during his first year in office.
The next morning, Trump retweeted the inflammatory videos, prompting a rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
He then tweeted out a call to investigate the July 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a staffer to former congressman turned MSNBC co-host Joe Scarborough. (Medical authorities said she died when she collapsed due to heart problems and struck her head.)
Standing by their man
Publicly, with a handful of exceptions, Republican members were still standing by Trump after the chaotic 48 hours.
One was Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, who defended Trump’s tweet that started the cascading dominoes and sunk the spending bill meeting. “I think, in that case, they’re using that as an excuse not to go and tried to attract attention to it so they could use it politically,” he said of the Democrats.
Asked about the president’s retweeting of the anti-Muslim videos, Inhofe first said, “Obviously, I’m not his adviser on tweets.” He then added: “I tell myself, ‘That’s just his style.’ He can be very effective sometimes. I’ve seen it work.”
Inhofe said Trump’s meeting last Tuesday in the Capitol with Senate Republicans demonstrated his effectiveness. Nothing erratic or troubling occurred during that session when Trump urged senators to pass a sweeping tax overhaul, the Oklahoma Republican said. “He just did a very good job in calming down the opposition and bringing everyone in,” Inhofe said.
Another Trump defender is the chamber’s longest-serving Republican, Orrin G. Hatch, who traveled home to Utah with Trump on Monday.
“I’ll say this for you, he’s been one of the best presidents I’ve served under,” Hatch said in a TV interview last week. “He’s not afraid to make decisions. He’s not afraid to take on the big mouths around here.” (Trump and his team noticed Hatch’s praise, with the president tweeting a video of the remarks along with thanks for the senator.)
Behind closed doors
But several Democratic members, granted anonymity to speak candidly about private conversations, said GOP members regularly share their growing angst behind closed doors.
“They express concerns privately, absolutely,” one Democratic member said.
Another Democrat said of Republicans, “I think that they are really worried.” That second Democrat replied “yes” without hesitation when asked if GOP colleagues are growing more concerned in private, adding, “Privately, from Day One, I’ve heard serious concerns.”
When pressed, a third Democrat who has served in both chambers over the course of more than five administrations, had this to say when asked if Republicans are more worried about Trump’s mindset and competency after last week’s turbulent 48 hours: “Now what do you think? Of course, the answer is ‘yes.’”
So why are Republicans so reluctant to speak out publicly?
“I think Republicans are going to keep talking privately about the president, but I think it serves nobody to stand up and say, ‘I think the president’s crazy,’” Danielle Pletka of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“He’s the president of the United States. … There is no political upside for Republicans because then the next question is, ‘OK, you think he’s crazy, you think he’s on drugs, you think there is something wrong with him?’” Pletka said. “Then the next question is, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ And the answer from them is, ‘We don’t want to do anything about it.’”
If GOP members’ private concerns reach a boiling point, their options would include formally reprimanding or even impeaching Trump. And even before that, they could speak out critically, as have a few of their colleagues, such as retiring Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
When asked if Republicans privately talk about taking any action against the president, the second Democrat replied, “No.”
“There’s a lot of shoulder-shrugging,” the member said, mimicking Republicans by making such a shoulder gesture and adding that GOP members’ general attitude can be summed up this way: “What can you do?”
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