The ousting of a secretary of State once elicited more than shrugs from lawmakers, but not in the era of Donald Trump. His erratic approach to the presidency has become the norm, and that could run counter to the best efforts of his party’s congressional leaders.
Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday morning via a tweet, announcing he would replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The move, in the works for months as the two clashed, came as House and Senate Republican leaders were hoping for several weeks of legislative progress — and even some high-profile bipartisan votes. For instance, the Senate was preparing for votes on a financial regulation bill that had broad support among Republicans and the backing of key Democrats.
But Trump put himself at center stage even though lawmakers and political operatives warned Tuesday that the chaos of his presidency — something he and his aides have denied — might cost his party in November’s midterms.
“It only reinforces the sense that 2018 — and then his own re-election in 2020 — will be about decency and no drama,” said Evan Siegfried, a GOP strategist. “I think the American people are sick and tired of this.”
Watch: Congressional Republicans Had Wonky Plans for the Week. Then Trump Happened
“There have been and are races across the country that are only as close as they are because of Donald Trump,” he added. “The Republican brand is so tarnished right now because people see the president and the party as all about chaos and incapable of steadiness and planning.”
That assessment is a far cry from how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants his party to be portrayed. In a 2015 interview with The Washington Post, the Kentucky Republican said the key to retaining the majority would be pursuing a legislative agenda and message that are anything but “scary.”
“I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority,” he said then.
So it was no coincidence that amid the latest Trump-spawned drama, McConnell used his weekly Tuesday remarks to talk about the bipartisan banking deregulation, combating sex trafficking and averting another government shutdown; his top lieutenant, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, followed by trumpeting a bipartisan bill he said would strengthen the federal background check system for gun purchases.
But since McConnell’s revealing 2015 Post interview, Trump swooped in and took over the party. And some members of McConnell’s caucus are worried this latest round of Trump drama could undercut the majority leader’s plans to avoid doing anything “scary” before voters head to the polls this fall.
“Yes, this does concern me. Look at what we have on the floor right now. This banking bill … is really the first substantive piece of legislation that we have really taken on,” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said. “We have had endless weeks where we were running up to a government shutdown.
“We’ve been trying to process judges, and we’ve done a much better job of processing judges than anything else. But the backlog of nominees we have, just from my committee of jurisdiction, we can’t get the floor time for that,” she said. “The housekeeping side of the Senate operations has really been consuming all of our time so we just are not getting to the legislating that people are expecting. We can be sitting here well into 2018 still processing nominations.”
One veteran Democrat was more succinct.
“This is the commander in chaos,” said Senate Foreign Relations ranking Democrat Robert Menendez, slamming Trump for “a State Department that has been emaciated.”
Several Democrats said they view the Tillerson ouster as just the latest example of White House upheaval that should help their party in November.
Watch: Trump, Touting Pompeo’s ‘Energy,’ Says He Clashed With Tillerson on Iran Deal
“I think after 14 months, it’s just the way he operates. So it doesn’t surprise any of us,” said West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, up for re-election this year in a state Trump carried by 42 points in 2016. “I think some people like chaos and some people don’t. Being the world’s superpower, people want more stability or the semblance of stability.”
A senior Democratic Senate aide said, “Republicans are going to have to spend their time between now and November making excuses for the chaos coming out of the White House. Every minute they’re doing that is a minute they’re not talking about the issues that can help them win.”
Some Republicans on Tuesday tried to deflect attention from the president’s erratic methods, focusing instead on what they view as Pompeo’s qualifications to take over as Trump’s chief diplomat and those of Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to take over the top job at Langley.
Haspel’s involvement in “black sites” and enhanced interrogation methods will be the focus of her confirmation process, and will put those issues back in the national spotlight, possibly complicating things for Republicans and drawing out floor debate about her suitability for the job.
“I tend to not view national security matters as politics,” said North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, who also panned Senate Democrats for, in his view, slow-walking many Trump nominees for national security posts.
Michael Steel, who was a senior aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner, said he “can’t imagine any serious effort to block Pompeo’s nomination.”
“Among other things, I can’t think of another potential secretary of State who is nearly as qualified or effective,” he said. “I’m sure liberals will make some noise about Haspel’s possible role in enhanced interrogation efforts after 9/11, but I doubt that will derail her nomination.”
Of note, though, is that two of the senators voicing concerns about Haspel and her part in the CIA torture program are Republicans with impeccable national security profiles: South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Arizona’s John McCain.
Siegfried, the GOP strategist, said Republicans are “resigned” to being tethered to Trump and his very public, almost daily dustups through November’s elections. That was on display as reporters talked to senators Tuesday.
“This president is very entrepreneurial. Tillerson comes from a place, Exxon [Mobil], where things were very process-oriented. … The president is not a process guy. He just makes decisions,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said, slapping his hands together to make the point that Trump decides something in a moment and moves on. (The Tennessee Republican once referred to Trump’s White House as an “adult daycare center.”)
If Democrats view Trump’s style and his State and CIA nominees as helping their midterm candidates, they could opt to erect hurdles to keep both in the headlines for months.
Cornyn said he believes it is important for Pompeo to be confirmed to his new post before Trump’s possible meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But the Texas Republican could not say how long it might take to get Pompeo and Haspel to their positions.
“It just depends on how much delay for delay’s sake we’re going to see on the nominations. They could be done rather expeditiously if there’s cooperation,” Cornyn said of the Democrats. “If there’s not … then things take longer.”
Jeremy Dillon and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.