While there has been significant Republican criticism on Capitol Hill of President Donald Trump’s actions toward Syria and the Kurdish people there, overall the GOP has become synonymous with support for Trump.
The few members of Congress who have strongly and consistently criticized the president are not sticking around past 2020, raising questions about what kind of credibility their voices will have with their peers, what platform they’ll have outside of Congress, and how the GOP will function in a post-Trump world.
A shrinking group
Republicans such as Reps. Francis Rooney of Florida, John Shimkus of Illinois, Will Hurd of Texas, Paul Mitchell of Michigan, Martha Roby of Alabama and Susan W. Brooks of Indiana have all broken with Trump in significant ways.
They’re all not running for reelection in 2020.
Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, the first Republican to come out in support of impeachment, left the party this summer, setting himself up for an uphill climb to keep his seat if he runs for reelection next fall.
The 2018 midterms helped create a dearth of Trump critics by wiping out many moderate Republicans from swing districts. Members of today’s House GOP conference are predominantly from red districts where support for Trump has been a litmus test.
Roby’s call for Trump to step aside as the 2016 nominee after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape earned her a last-minute write-in campaign that ate into her margin and forced her into a primary runoff in 2018. She earned Trump’s backing and survived.
But South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford — a vocal Trump critic — wasn’t so lucky, losing to a pro-Trump primary opponent. Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona — also vocal critics — declined to run in 2018. Flake was open about not running because he knew he couldn’t win his primary.
Liberated to speak
Even if they won’t admit publicly that they’re retiring because of Trump, some departing members can now speak more freely.
Earlier this month, Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria led Shimkus — who had announced in August he would not seek a 13th term — to tell KMOX radio that he’d asked his chief of staff to have his name removed from “the ‘I support Donald Trump’ list.”
“I do think saying, ‘I’m not running’ made it easier for me to blurt out what I blurted out,” Shimkus told CQ Roll Call off the House floor Wednesday.
Shimkus said his comments don’t mean he won’t be voting for Trump in 2020. Social issues make it hard for him to envision voting for a Democrat, and he said he wasn’t likely to go the write-in or third-party route. But he didn’t rule it out.
“I mean, you never know. That’s why I like the privacy of the ballot,” Shimkus said.
Rooney is among the House Republicans who have been the least likely to support positions Trump has taken on legislation this year, according to CQ’s Vote Watch. Earlier this month, he went further than most Republicans when he told CNN that he couldn’t rule out the possibility that Trump’s offenses rose to the level of impeachment.
The very next day, he announced his retirement.
Rooney is adamant that Trump didn’t have anything to do with his decision to call it quits one term before he reaches the three-term limit he set for himself. He first thought about retiring earlier this year when it looked as though the Democrat-controlled House would pass one of the things he most wanted to accomplish in Congress: a moratorium on offshore drilling.
Mitchell, another sophomore Republican, confronted Trump on Twitter in 2017, after the president said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was one of the first Republicans to criticize Trump’s tweets this summer telling four Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from. He announced his retirement less than two weeks later.
“My objective was to stay 10 years,” Mitchell said in an interview last week. “But I came to the determination I was not doing the things I came here to do.”
When Brooks, a four-term Indiana Republican, announced her retirement in June, she said it wasn’t a politically motivated decision. But she’s never shied away from rebuking the president. In July, she was one of just four Republicans — along with Hurd, who announced his retirement soon afterward — who voted for a Democratic resolution condemning Trump’s tweets about the congresswomen as racist.
But Trump’s denunciation of “Never Trumpers” as “human scum” scares Republicans who could face a primary.
“They fear Donald Trump more than they fear their constituencies,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said at a Bipartisan Policy Center luncheon last week.
Republicans for the Rule of Law, an anti-Trump group, has spent over $1 million on TV ads this year urging members to “stand up.” But many of them are already retiring.
“I really wish people would put their seat on the line,” Steele said. “Yeah, you may lose the primary, but you’re losing on principle.”
Amash had harsh words for his former party colleagues who are leaving Congress.
“When I see members criticize the president and then announce retirement the next day, it undermines what we’re trying to do, which is to hold the president accountable,” Amash said last week.
But Hurd maintains he’ll still have a powerful voice.
“Look, I’m not dying,” he said, suggesting he may have opportunities in the private sector, media or academia.
Mitchell, who was elected sophomore representative to GOP House leadership, wasn’t sure whether his departure would diminish the legitimacy of his voice with his peers in Congress.
“I don’t know, it’s early yet. Maybe,” he said. “If it means less to them, because I’m leaving in a year, that in fact just reaffirms my belief that it’s more about politics and less about policy.”
What to do after?
So what’s a Trump critic to do out of Congress?
Running for president is one option. Sanford has launched a long-shot primary challenge to Trump.
Amash said he’s running for reelection as an independent, but he hasn’t ruled out challenging Trump.
Hurd has left the door open to running for president in 2024. For now, though, the former CIA officer said he’s focused on reshaping the party in 2020.
“I’m looking forward to helping candidates, up and down the ballot, in this election cycle so we look like the rest of the country,” he said.
The only black Republican in the House, Hurd said he didn’t see any incongruity between his departure and trying to sell other minority Republicans on coming to Congress.
“This is not a job where I think you’re supposed to be here for the rest of your life,” Hurd said. “I love the CIA, and left that to help the intelligence community in a different way.”
Flake got himself a TV contract, while Corker still weighs in on the administration’s foreign policy decisions in the press. Neither would comment for this story.
Rooney, who has urged the GOP to accept the urgency of combating climate change, expects to stay involved in carbon tax advocacy. Mitchell said he doesn’t yet have a plan and isn’t sure he’ll still have a platform.
“I don’t know if anyone’s going to care,” he said.