The chaos of President Donald Trump’s White House has Republican leaders scrambling to defend what they hope will soon be a functional administration. But cracks in that resolve are starting to show amid a seemingly endless series of self-inflicted setbacks.
Just under a month in office, Trump has already fired his national security adviser, as Congress eyes investigations. A top choice to replace that adviser quickly declined the job. Trump’s pick for labor secretary withdrew as Republican lawmakers threatened to bolt over his nomination, while the Office of Government Ethics called for an investigation after a top Trump adviser plugged Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on television.
And that was just in the last week.
“There’s a very real concern that there’s a lack of competency and that it’s still a shorthanded administration,” Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento, California-based Republican consultant, said in an interview following the ouster of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. “There’s a very real concern manifesting itself that no one’s going to want to go in there and work for this president in this type of chaos, palace intrigue. And within the last 24 hours, there’s greater concern that there are budding scandals that may be tilting against them.”
It’s all happening as White House advisers and surrogates contradict one another – and the president – on television, and as Trump upends his own policy agenda daily by firing off often-angry tweets.
The barrage of resulting bad headlines has some lawmakers showing a new willingness to break – ever so slightly – with the administration, despite the unwavering support Trump continues to enjoy from many GOP activists around the country, who bristle at any suggestion of a White House in disarray.
“From the beginning, only a handful (of lawmakers) were willing to step up, be critical,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a conservative operative based in Texas. “I think the number is growing, the significance of who they are is growing.”
Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has gently rebuked Trump over his Twitter habit, saying it would be “easier for us to succeed were there fewer daily tweets.” Some members of Congress, including Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., have been encouraging of more oversight of the Trump administration. And most significantly, a number of Republican senators have suggested that Flynn may need to testify as part of congressional investigations into the role Russia may have played in the 2016 presidential election. (He was let go, the White House says, after misrepresenting to Vice President Mike Pence the extent of his contacts with the Russian ambassador before the Trump team was sworn in.)
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a frequent Trump critic, has been asking pointed questions about Flynn’s ties to the Russians and who else might have been involved. But it’s not just him. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made a point of tweeting that the “Flynn situation” would be part of a Senate Intelligence Committee probe of Russian involvement, and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who is also on that committee, has been insistent that Flynn needs to speak with lawmakers.
“It’s really important for Republicans to put their country above their party loyalty at this point,” said Steinhauser, who was Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s campaign manager (Cornyn, R-Texas, has also said he wants the Senate to investigate the Flynn imbroglio). “I think there’s obviously some of that evident in Congress. You see folks stepping up and saying, ‘Yes, look into this.’ ”
But, he added, “In the grass-roots world, the party official world, there’s a little bit less concern out there than I would like.”
Indeed, even as a growing number of Washington lawmakers are beginning to publicly differ with Trump, there is no appetite among grass-roots activists and some party leaders for any action perceived as undermining the president.
It’s early, they say, and he is already delivering on major promises he made during the campaign, including naming a conservative, Neil Gorsuch, to a slot on the Supreme Court and imposing more stringent restrictions on immigration.
They fault the media for pursuing storylines that highlight dysfunction in the White House, rather than activities of the administration itself.
“The mainstream media reports conflict more than any good stuff happening. It gets exhausting after a while,” said former Arizona GOP Chairman Robert Graham, a staunch Trump ally. “Give the guy a little bit of an opportunity here. I think they’re not reporting on the positives right now, but we’re headed in a positive direction.”
Trump himself held a lengthy news conference on Thursday in which he insisted his administration is running like a “fine-tuned machine,” swatting down reports of chaos.
And Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host based in Macon, Georgia, who was a Trump critic during the campaign, said there was a feeling that the media – along with liberal protesters – were hyperventilating over every perceived transgression to the point that even other Trump critics were sick of hearing the narrative that the president was on the wrong track.
“Every single person I know who was skeptical of the president, didn’t like the president from the right, has appreciated him more in light of what they view as a temper tantrum on the left,” said Erickson, who is personally deeply troubled by Trump’s continued use of Twitter to attack companies and people.
That dynamic helps explain why – despite a series of actions that would have had Republicans howling under President Barack Obama – there is not a critical mass of GOP lawmakers in Washington willing to directly confront the administration. Many party leaders who privately have serious concerns about the way the first few weeks of the administration have unfolded are publicly continuing to hold their tongues, or to speak up only when they have reason to offer praise.
“As long as he’s polling well among Republican primary voters . . . as long as he’s over 50 percent in their districts, every time something happens they’re going to suddenly remember they left the water running in the bathtub back home,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican operative and lobbyist, and a frequent Trump critic. “When he dips down and it suddenly becomes safe to speak truth to power, I think some people will start doing it. No, we’re not there yet. It will be awhile.”
Another reason many Republicans are giving Trump leeway is that they are in bargaining mode. They are keeping their eye on long-held priorities, be it tax restructuring, Obamacare repeal or confirming a conservative Supreme Court nominee, and they are willing to give Trump a pass on other indiscretions that they would ordinarily call out, because they are hopeful he will still follow through on the things they care about most.
“The last few weeks, really since the start of the administration, have been a mixed bag,” said Eric Teetsel, the president of the conservative Family Policy Alliance of Kansas. “On the one side, you have the Gorsuch nomination, which was a home run. Everyone acknowledges that’s a really big deal. In fact, it’s such a big deal, I think there has been a reluctance to be critical of other moves that the president has done on issues that under the Obama administration were a really big deal, and to which the conservative movement responded.”
He pointed, for example, to an executive order protecting the rights of gay and lesbian federal workers that didn’t include “any kind of exemption for people of faith.” There was barely a peep about that from people who have spent their careers fighting same-sex marriage.
“I attribute that deference to someone who is still viewed as an ally on our most important issues,” he said, pointing again to the Supreme Court. “So much of the dysfunction that’s been seen in other realms – in national security, foreign policy – hasn’t really had a bearing on life, marriage, religious freedom.”
Indeed, the two Republican lawmakers in Washington willing to speak out against Trump most frequently – Graham and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. – are particularly attuned to matters of national security. It has also been foreign-policy-minded Republicans who have been the most willing segment of the GOP base to express differences with the president.
But, noted Steinhauser, much of the grass roots simply doesn’t believe a lot of the reporting out there about Trump and his national security missteps – and won’t, unless conservative media outlets lean into the stories.
“There is a huge trust gap between Republican party activists and The New York Times and CNN and . . . everybody else,” he said. “Part of the problem is, they’re seeing a lot of the reporting start there, and they don’t want to believe it. Until you see more conservative journalism – newspapers, magazines and leaders, talk radio hosts – come out and talk about this being a problem, people won’t have the cover I think they feel is necessary to come out and raise these questions.”
“It’s a matter of time,” he added.