By Dan Balz,
As President Trump lurches from one crisis to another, Republicans have chosen a strategy of compartmentalization over confrontation. It is a survival mechanism, one that comes with no guarantee of ultimate success but with significant risks attached.
It was just a year ago that Trump emerged from the primaries as the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee, having bested the favored candidates of the party establishment. Ever since, those in the establishment, including many elected officials, have grappled with the terms of what has always been an uncomfortable bargain. They and the president are on different pages, both generally allied and wary and sometimes mistrustful of one another.
With each controversy, Republicans try to look away, in the hope that the storm around the White House will pass and some sense of calm and normalcy will emerge. Events of the past eight days — the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director and now the report that the president shared highly classified information from a U.S. ally with the Russians — underscore just how difficult it has become to maintain that posture.
Many Republicans embraced the president’s decision to dismiss Comey, but then found themselves parroting a rationale for the firing first offered by White House officials — that it originated at the Justice Department and had nothing to do with the ongoing Russia investigation — that was undermined days later by the president’s own words. This was one more reminder that vouching for the credibility of White House statements can be perilous.
Reactions to the unfolding story about the new report, first published in The Post, that Trump passed along intelligence during an Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the United States, have been more muted as elected Republicans try to analyze statements from White House officials about what happened. The stakes are far higher on this matter, and the hesitant response from members of the president’s party reflects the seriousness of this latest episode.
In that context, the reaction of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was telling. Corker has been, generally, restrained in his criticism of the president. In this case, he sent a message to the White House that reflected exasperation that must be widespread with the president’s party. “Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening,” he said of the operations of the White House and senior officials around the president. “And the shame of it is, there’s a really good national security team in place.”
Republicans desperately want this relationship to work. They have a big policy agenda they want to see turned into law. They want to move on health care and taxes, government regulations and budget priorities. They waited through the last years of the previous administration for the opportunity to hold all the levers of power. Now that they have them, though possibly only for a limited time, they want to do as much as they can as quickly as they can to undo what former president Barack Obama had done and to advance a series of long-sought conservative policies.
To pursue a course of confrontation or conflict with Trump over everything from the events of the past eight days to his claim that Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower to claims of unprecedented electoral fraud is, in the estimation of many Republicans, counterproductive. On big matters, they will put some distance between themselves and the president. They hope to avoid creating barriers with a volatile president who came to office largely independent of the party he claims as his own.
When the president tweets something provocative, they prefer not to give the fire more oxygen. But the regularity of these fires is taking its toll. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed his view Tuesday in the way he often does, through understatement.
“I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so we can focus on our agenda,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
On legislative matters, however, the president has proven to be an unsteady partner. Trump has provided limited leadership on health care and limited leadership on taxes. He has offered direction that does not always conform to the preferences of conservatives in Congress. He has offered guidelines but no details. His priorities are not always those of congressional Republicans. He retains the power to sign legislation but in all other ways seems to frustrate or complicate efforts by congressional Republicans to bring those measures to his desk.
The president can interfere. In a recent interview with the Economist, Trump spoke about health care in ways Congress will be hard-pressed to deliver, from an assurance that everyone will be covered to the claim that premiums and deductibles will be lower than they would be under the Affordable Care Act. That’s not what the Congressional Budget Office said of the first version the House had under consideration.
Nor has the president proven to be the master dealmaker that some had hoped. His efforts the first time the House was preparing to vote on health care came up short. For the most part, he washed his hands of the effort to revive the bill, which just proved successful. That came about through the work of House members, though White House officials were pushing for action. Now the Senate is mostly starting from scratch on its own bill. But the timetable for these big priorities has slipped significantly from aspirations earlier in the year.
Beyond that is the collateral damage from the constant controversies. There is rarely a quiet week in this presidency. The president claimed last week that he moves so quickly it’s difficult for his own advisers to explain fully and truthfully what’s going on or what his positions are. The reality is more worrisome.
The White House is now in perpetual crisis mode, reacting to the latest eruption, consumed by talk of a staff shake-up, pointing fingers at one another when things go wrong. All of that affects the legislative process. It’s not that congressional committees cannot go about doing basic business, but the distraction of a crisis-a-week in a media environment in which every official must respond and react creates an atmosphere that is anything but helpful to the ongoing process of governing. The big story saps the energies of everyone.
Republicans will try to maintain this uncomfortable balance in the relationship as long as possible. War with the White House is not an option. The terms will only change if there is a dramatic shift in public opinion that puts their House majority at risk, or until the president’s controversies become serious enough to force a constitutional breach.
Events have not reached that point, but if they grow worse, so too will the tensions between the mutual self-interest of congressional Republicans and the White House to maintain a positive relationship, vs. the responsibility of one branch of government to check another when it becomes necessary.