Republican political and foreign policy operatives, astonished by President Donald Trump’s decision to share an ally’s classified intelligence with Russia, warned on Tuesday that this disclosure would drive fresh cracks in party unity behind its president.
The president didn’t deny reports out Monday night that he had shared classified information with Russian officials, or that administration officials had sought to contain the damage at the highest levels of the national security apparatus. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defended Trump, saying later Tuesday that the president hadn’t known the source of the information and insisting the conversation had been “wholly appropriate.”
But Republican lawmakers were not taking White House pushback at face value — the latest sign that they are losing patience with Trump.
“Members of Congress are sick of being asked every single day to respond to something President Trump did or said,” said Alex Conant, who has served as a top communications adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail. “They want to be building support for their shared agenda, and instead they’re trying to navigate a political crisis more days than not, it seems like.”
Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union, said Republican lawmakers weare trying to give the president — a novice in government — space to learn but their patience extended only so far. “He’s not experienced at this, so naturally they want to give him a runway, a learning curve,” he said. “Transgressions like yesterday’s will shorten the runway considerably.”
“You can’t have a shoe dropping every day and run a government,” Cardenas added.
Since the story of Trump’s intel disclosure, first reported by The Washington Post, landed, a number of Republican lawmakers have publicly expressed concerns with the White House. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the administration was in a “downward spiral,” creating a “worrisome environment,” while Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., called for a transcript of the meeting with Russian officials to be released to the House of Representatives and Senate Intelligence committees.
Even Republican leadership appeared caught off guard. In a statement, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office asked for a “full explanation of the facts from the administration.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “We could do with a little less drama from the White House.”
“There is tremendous momentum toward chaos and disarray,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based GOP strategist. Pointing to McConnell’s remark, he said: “Clearly, the Republicans on the Hill are saying, ‘This just needs to stop. Get back to normalcy.’ There’s obviously skepticism now by Republicans, by Democrats, that that may be possible.”
Certainly, Republican lawmakers are not abandoning Trump, who continues to enjoy strong and unwavering support from conservative grass-roots activists. Indeed, many Republican critics of the president have been discouraged by what they see as an unquestioning circling of the wagons from the rest of the party.
But to the extent that this issue — which follows Trump’s controversial firing last week of FBI Director James Comey — hampers the GOP’s ability to advance legislative priorities, that’s when rank-and-file members, and candidates running in 2018, may feel more political pressure from home.
“We could reach a tipping point where members of Congress run from Trump,” Conant said. “We’re not at that point yet, in part because there’s still hope we can pass health care and tax reform. I think the moment the agenda collapses is when there stops being common cause for President Trump and congressional Republicans.”
There’s no question, Republicans say, that the controversies of the last week have been a distraction at best — and have further discouraged Democrats from wanting to play a role in advancing virtually any element of a GOP agenda.
“Republicans now need to spend more time having their questions answered, as to all of the whys regarding the president’s decisions and actions, as opposed to focusing on a policy agenda,” Stutzman said. “You’re certainly getting close to Republicans on the Hill probably starting to assess how to move policy with a White House that is, to quote Sen. Corker, spiraling at the moment.”