‘People are in meltdown mode.’ Inside the GOP donor class panic about Trump

President Donald Trump attends the commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Controversies concerning Trump have GOP donors alarmed.
President Donald Trump attends the commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Controversies concerning Trump have GOP donors alarmed. AP

Pangs of fear and frustration are rippling through the Republican donor and operative classes as Donald Trump’s self-inflicted wounds threaten to fully derail the GOP legislative agenda and tarnish the party’s brand headed into the midterms.

At a Miami donor retreat and at a high-powered Washington dinner, on Capitol Hill and at political firms across the country, Republican donors and operatives this week watched the barrage of bad headlines about Trump with a mixture of awe, angst and anger, worrying about the political implications for their Republican majorities—and about the legal implications for the president.

“If you’re not concerned, you’re not paying attention,” said Austin Barbour, a Mississippi-based GOP strategist and veteran fundraiser, who is primarily worried that the Republican agenda on Capitol Hill is being hamstrung amid a constant series of controversies involving the White House.

“President Trump was elected because people believed in what he was saying, that he was going to turn the country around, bring more and better jobs to the country, fix the issues with immigration…They’ve got to deliver on that, they’ve got to be able to work with Congress to get things done.”

Interviews with Republicans in and close to the donor community revealed growing worries that Congress has been knocked off kilter by the problems engulfing Trump—and that it will be enormously challenging to get back on track as the contours of 2018 congressional races begin to take shape.

“If you look at the coalition that ultimately got Trump over the top, he had his base—he probably still has his base—but he had to convince mainstream establishment Republicans, many in the high finance world of politics, to come along with him,” said former Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican who is considering another run, but is waiting, in part, to see what the environment looks like for the GOP.

“After Jeb [Bush] got out, others got out, you saw the establishment finance Republicans, many of them holding their nose, recognize that they want a Republican in the White House. That’s the group that may be eroding right now,” Jolly said.

The Republican president is grappling with reports that he shared classified information with Russian officials, and that he encouraged then-FBI Director James Comey to end a probe into ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. That report, which first surfaced in The New York Times and which the White House denies, comes a week after Trump fired Comey, who was leading an investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Asked which of those developments tripping up Trump was most troubling, one major GOP donor and fundraiser replied, “It’s hard to choose.”

The source, who described the GOP donor community as “shell-shocked” and more inclined to focus on the House and Senate right now, ultimately pointed to the reports of pressuring Comey. If true, it “meets a broad definition of obstruction of justice,” the donor said, adding that it’s likely that Democrats would “go forward, at some point,” with impeachment proceedings.

“That’s certainly going to bog down any legislative agenda,” the Republican added.

At a gathering of the Republican Governors Association at a Trump resort in the Miami area this week, donors were also anxious, consumed by the feeling that “it’s going to be impossible to get anything done,” said one Republican operative in attendance.

“They’re flipping out like everybody else, of course they are,” said the operative, going on to add, “People are in meltdown mode.”

An RGA member who attended the gathering wouldn’t go that far, but did acknowledge some feelings of “frustration.”

“They’d like to see things move forward faster,” the RGA member said. “There is a frustration…that none of the undersecretaries have been appointed. I think we’ve got to start moving on policy, but at the end of it, people are still cautiously optimistic and hopeful things will still be moving ahead.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, though Trump received back-up from House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said Wednesday morning that he does still have confidence in the president.

At a dinner at the luxe Willard hotel in downtown Washington this week, however, there was a recognition among attendees that it has been difficult to move forward amid swirling Trump-related controversies. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spoke at the event hosted by the International Republican Institute, said that the current dynamics are at “a point where it’s of Watergate size and scale… the shoes continue to drop, and every couple days there’s a new aspect.”

For many Republicans—for now—that continual shoe-dropping, and its ability to knock D.C. off course, is the more immediate problem. Republicans control all of Washington, ratcheting up the pressure to have a record to run on in 2018.

“At this time, as we speak today, I’m more concerned with, this is getting their legislative agenda off track,” Barbour said. “And listen, they’ve got a year to get stuff done before the elections in 2018, and I know members of Congress and President Trump, these guys want to get this stuff done. But they’re just so off message. They’ve got to find a way to get back to focusing on what people care about, what people elected him to do. If not, they’re in real trouble.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers and donors are also growing increasingly concerned with the substance of the developments besieging Trump. Some Republicans have called for a special prosecutor or independent commission as it relates to Russian involvement in the 2016 election. And Republicans have joined Democrats in stressing the need for Comey to testify.

Taken together, some Republicans have privately begun to doubt whether Trump will serve a full term (Trump has already filed for re-election in 2020).

“I’m finding it hard to find people who say, ‘No, this isn’t that bad,’” said one Republican operative with close ties to the donor and lobbying worlds. “It’s gradients of bad, [from] ‘we were wrong before, he’ll survive,’ to, ‘this is the beginning of the end.’ I’m not finding anyone who says this isn’t a problem. Is this the beginning of a problem that knocks him out?...What’s the over-under on him making it four years? That’s the conversation.”

One Republican bundler who has worked closely with the Republican National Committee in the past was incensed, saying that Trump had actually done the very things that conservatives had fretted Hillary Clinton might hypothetically do—intentionally or not—when it came to sharing classified information with adversaries.

“These are not minor and insignificant issues,” the source said. “We pilloried the Democratic nominee for creating the conditions where that possibly could happen. He did it! He admits to it! I don’t know how you overcome that, when that was the cornerstone of folks not voting for her. So here we are, and I guess, shame on us.”

President Donald Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said on Tuesday that the president didn't know where information that he shared with Russian officials came from. He didn't deny that Trump had discussed information deemed classif

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck