Republican unease with President Trump is building, and if it snowballs, the White House could suffer significant political damage.
Asked about the mood among conservatives, GOP strategist Rick Tyler replied with a single word: “Fatigue.”
The pattern of negative headlines continued late Tuesday afternoon, when The New York Times reported that Trump earlier this year asked then-FBI Director James Comey, whom he would later fire, to shut down the bureau’s investigation into the president’s ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
“I hope you can let this go,” Trump allegedly told Comey. The White House quickly pushed back at The New York Times account.
That report came on the heels of 24 hours of intense controversy over a Washington Post story asserting that Trump had revealed highly classified information to Russian officials.
In politics, the key is to keep your party in line during turbulent times. Attracting criticism from the other side of the aisle is always expected, but taking heat from your own party can be debilitating.
Among GOP lawmakers, Sen. John McCainJohn McCainThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingGOP nears total exasperation with TrumpMcCain: Trump scandals reaching ‘Watergate size and scale’MORE (Ariz.) has taken the lead in criticizing Trump.
In a Tuesday morning statement, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee called the Russian reports “deeply disturbing.”
McCain, whose imprisonment during the Vietnam War was mocked by Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries, has for some time called for the creation of a select committee to look into allegations of collusion between Trump campaign associates and Moscow. In early April when discussing the ongoing Russia probes, he said, “Every time we turn around, another shoe drops from this centipede.”
Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSenate GOP warms to larger insurance subsidies for older and low-income peopleThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingGOP nears total exasperation with TrumpMORE (R-Maine) said that if the reports about Trump’s alleged remarks on classified information were true, it would be “very troubling.” Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerSenate GOP warms to larger insurance subsidies for older and low-income peopleThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingGOP nears total exasperation with TrumpMORE (R-Tenn.), who said after the election he was “in the mix” for a role in the Trump administration, described the White House as in a “downward spiral.”
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingGOP nears total exasperation with TrumpOvernight Cybersecurity: Questions mount over N. Korea’s ties to ransomware attack | House passes cyber crime bill | NSA leakers plan to release more hacking toolsMORE (R-Utah), who has defended Trump against Democratic barbs this year, last week asked the Department of Justice’s inspector general to investigate the president’s firing of Comey.
Trump upset many in the GOP establishment during his presidential run and thrived on various controversies as he won the Republican nomination before later upsetting Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFemale lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirementThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingRight pushes Trump to make staff, press changesMORE in November. But the intraparty wariness about Trump since inauguration has hampered the White House’s agenda on Capitol Hill and contributed to deeply negative approval ratings.
The allegations about the president and Comey, and about what Trump allegedly told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak fused together to form the latest, deepest crisis in a grim stretch for the administration.
No sooner had Republicans celebrated the House’s passage of legislation aimed at dismantling the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, than Trump ignited a firestorm by firing Comey.
Shifting rationales were offered by the White House for getting rid of the director. Then Trump stoked the atmosphere of crisis still further by suggesting, on Twitter, that there were recordings of his White House conversations with Comey. Meanwhile, speculation about a looming White House shakeup has intensified.
To be sure, there are plenty of prominent Republicans who have remained silent or who are soft-pedaling any criticism of the White House.
On Monday evening, Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanFemale lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirementThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingGOP nears total exasperation with TrumpMORE (R-Wis.) issued a circumspect statement through spokesman Doug Andres. “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount,” Andres wrote in an email. “The Speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellFemale lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirementThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingGOP nears total exasperation with TrumpMORE (R-Ky.), who has repeatedly expressed dismay with Trump’s tweeting habits, told Bloomberg,” I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things.” Later on Tuesday, McConnell professed no concern about Trump’s ability to handle classified information.
Tyler, who worked for Trump rival Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzSenate GOP warms to larger insurance subsidies for older and low-income peopleThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingTed Cruz shares Rosie O’Donnell tweet in Senate fundraising pitchMORE (R-Texas) during the 2016 primaries, said that while GOP leadership on Capitol Hill had made errors of its own, “I would blame the White House for the incessant, recurring missteps that occupy news cycle after news cycle.”
Shortly before noon on Tuesday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster held a media briefing at the White House, in which he asserted that Trump’s conduct of the meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak was “wholly appropriate.”
McMaster, however, seemed to retreat from the emphatic position he had staked out the previous evening in pushing back against The Washington Post story.
On Monday evening, he stated, “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.” By Tuesday, McMaster had shifted subtly to say that the “premise” of the story was false. He also would not be drawn out on the central question of whether Trump had revealed classified information.
In two early-morning tweets, Trump himself had said that he had “the absolute right” to share information with Russia, adding that he wanted the Kremlin to “greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
But the broader picture is one in which the president has, with the exception of the House healthcare reform bill, no major legislative achievements to his name and has been frequently beset by controversies, often of his own making.
The furor over the Russian meeting “wasn’t the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson, a longtime Trump critic. “But every day has something like this. There is this accretion of trouble every single day. One scandal after another, one mistake after another, one train wreck after another.”
A Democrat who worked in damage control in former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingCNN analyst: ‘We’re in impeachment territory’Rahm Emanuel: Dems need to ‘fight for the middle class’MORE’s administration, when the 42nd president was struggling with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, cautioned that such situations could quickly go from bad to worse for the occupant of the Oval Office.
“These members are like a herd of cattle on the plains, where one bolt of lightning will send them into a stampede,” the source wrote in an email. “In [the] Clinton era, [I] spent a lot of time with members, quietly showing Clinton maintained strong job approval ratings even when people were personally upset with the conduct. Trump does not have a job approval safety net.”
The situation is changing almost by the hour, with some Republicans shifting from their earlier belief that GOP lawmakers would stick with Trump, if only because they don’t have a great alternative.
Strategist Mark McKinnon, who worked for former President George W. Bush, had been relatively sanguine about Trump’s chances of keeping the GOP in line early on Tuesday. After the latest Comey revelations, however, McKinnon changed tack. “Given today’s developments, I suspect that a lot of GOP members are going to develop a sudden allergy to the White House,” he said.
Others, like Wilson, have been predicting doom for some time.
“It is going to be politically unendurable for a lot of these guys,” he said.
“Once we end up at that point, you are going to have a lot more willing to publicly distance themselves — but also doing things like not jump into the legislative agenda. They are not going to be part of defending something that is indefensible.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOPINION: The Comey memo offers zero evidence to impeach TrumpThe Memo: GOP anger at Trump is buildingNine protesters injured after Trump-Erdogan meeting: reportMORE’s presidency. Mike Lillis contributed.