Sen. Bob Corker had just enjoyed an 80-minute feast with Donald Trump in late April, the “best” one-on-one time he’d had with the new president. Yet even then, the Republican senator was worried.
“Right now, they seem to take one step forward and two steps back,” Corker said in an interview shortly after the dinner, and weeks before Trump sacked FBI Director James Comey and spilled classified information to Russian officials in the Oval Office. “It’s hurting their ability to produce the results they want to produce.”
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By Monday evening, Corker had deemed the White House to be in a “downward spiral.” The Tennessee Republican added on Tuesday that he was trying to “address the broader issue of having some discipline” and that the “chaos is just not healthy.”
While the comments were perhaps the bluntest assessment among Republican lawmakers of the foundering White House, Corker is hardly alone in his view.
Most Republicans admit privately that the White House is chaotic, disorganized and a near-constant headache. But they were well aware of the migraines Trump would cause for them after he won the election. And if an erratic, mistake-prone president is the price for potentially repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes and other legislative goodies they couldn’t have imagined would be within reach a few months ago — well, so be it.
Barring a dead-to-rights impeachable offense, it seems there will be no widespread GOP condemnation of the president, or calls for a special prosecutor to investigate him. Republicans made their deal with Trump and — save for a handful of vulnerable House incumbents — they’re sticking with it for the foreseeable future.
“Understand, the drama of the White House is going to be there regardless, between self-inflicted wounds and a media that wants to make everything ominous. We’re just going to have to stay focused and not follow the 15-minute news cycle,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Tuesday. “It all depends on what we can accomplish: If we can get a health care bill that works better than Obamacare and we can get a tax bill, then a lot of this will just be political theater.”
Republicans are politically frozen nearly every time Trump courts controversy. Their voters still generally support him, and the midterms are 18 months away, an eon in Trump’s fast-moving presidency. Coming out hard against Trump now could paint GOP lawmakers into a corner that could hurt them later if the White House reverses its poor polling numbers next fall. Many Republicans abandoned Trump last fall when he looked toxic and destined to lose, only to watch him go on to win.
So, each day, Republicans must decide whether the Trump news of the day is worth taking a stand on. And more often than not, the answer is “no.”
“There’s obviously a hypersensitivity with the Russians right now. Rightfully so, based on what they did in our elections,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). With the fast-paced news cycle, he said, some stories “suddenly look huge, when in the context … they’re not that big.”
Added Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.): “A lot of [the controversies], you’ve got to figure it’s a one-day story. Two-day story. You separate the serious stuff, because a lot of times it sounds serious but it doesn’t go very far.”
Yet each week — or day — seems to bring a new surprise: On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Trump implored Comey to stop investigating ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn. It was the latest example that Republicans — who often receive little or no advance warning from the White House about negative stories coming — can’t keep up.
“I’m exhausted,” one GOP lawmaker said with a sigh on Tuesday afternoon.
Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio heard about Comey’s firing from the Senate parliamentarian; this week, he learned of the news of Trump revealing classified information to Russian officials from reporters hounding him for real-time reaction.
“Sometimes this stuff is breaking faster than our ability to check online,” Rubio explained.
The Florida Republican was one of the few GOP lawmakers to hear from the White House in the aftermath of reports on the Russia meeting. Remarkably, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) struggled all day Tuesday to reach administration officials for their version of events.
The rest of the GOP received a one-page list of talking points from the White House that contained three statements from administration officials and four bullet points laying out how to defend the president. They arrived far too late for senators to use them.
“There is nothing more important to President Trump than the safety and the security of the American people,” read one of the talking points.
“Civil aviation threats are real,” read another.
Republicans had hoped that perhaps Mike Pence would attend the Senate GOP’s lunch on Tuesday to explain more about the president’s conversation with Russian officials. But the vice president was tied up with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Instead Marc Short, a senior White House official, met with lawmakers.
Attendees said senators did not bring up their concerns about Trump’s disclosure to the Russian officials. Instead, the focus was on health care.
One senior GOP aide said many lawmakers are frustrated with Trump but that Republicans have to be careful about criticizing him, lest they jeopardize their legislative agenda. “I don’t think you’re going to see a revolt right now.”
White House officials said they realize that Republicans in Congress are getting tired of the constant drama but that isn’t their first worry. One official said the White House doesn’t believe the damage within Congress is “too much at this point” and that many Republicans can be assuaged by people they trust in the national security community.
Another White House aide acknowledged that there was no “organized or robust immediate effort” to respond to Monday’s bombshell report in The Washington Post, though some lawmakers, including Rubio, did receive calls. The aide said that White House staffers were taken aback by the story and that there was “lots of chaos in the first few hours,” likening it to last week’s firing of Comey.
That made it almost impossible for Republicans to defend Trump’s interactions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. One major problem for Trump is that a fair number of Republicans don’t believe Trump should be hosting those Russian officials in the first place.
“I know this: Lavrov should never have been inside of the Oval Office. This is the foreign minister of a country that used precision weapons to destroy hospitals and kills innocent people in Aleppo. To me, they are war criminals,” said an exasperated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “I cannot understand it … the meeting was at the request of Vladimir Putin. Why should we accede to his wishes?”
But McCain, Corker and other blunt-spoken Republicans remain outliers in their party. Far from coalescing behind Democratic efforts to launch a select committee or special prosecutor to scrutinize ties between Trump and Russia, many Republicans refuse to publicly admit they’re even troubled by the White House’s pattern of controversy and botched explanations.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) even deemed Corker’s “downward spiral” comment a “radical” assessment of the administration’s performance.
“They’re not in a downward spiral. I know Trump. Trump is always up,” Hatch insisted.
Longtime senators say they’ve seen past presidents stumble out of the gate. Shelby recalled that in Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, his attempt to pass health care reform collapsed, a special counsel was appointed to investigate Whitewater and Democrats lost the House.
“Clinton had all these bumps in the road. We forget,” Shelby said. “The next six to eight months are very important.”
The Alabama senator should know: A longtime Democrat, he switched parties after the 1994 GOP takeover. And he said Clinton’s performance in those times was a significant factor in that decision.
Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.