On Tuesday morning, the news of the day was that House Republicans had voted to gut the independent office that oversaw their ethics, behind closed doors and without any public debate. The news did not go over well — stories about the move went viral on social media, and a chorus of condemnations rained in from all sides.
At first the president-elect’s team didn’t seem particularly disturbed by this news. When asked about it during a TV appearance, incoming Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway downplayed the matter and said the House GOP had won a “mandate” to make changes like this.
But Trump apparently decided he couldn’t let things lie there. Shortly after 10 am, the president-elect fired off two tweets indicating his displeasure with the House GOP’s move — two tweets that could herald a very interesting working relationship between him and his party’s members of Congress:
With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
........may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2017
Many pundits reacted to this by pointing out that these are empty words and posturing from Trump, which is largely true. So far, the president-elect has been utterly uninterested in dealing with conflicts of interest that his business presents, spanning from his many projects in at least 17 other countries to the vast amount of money he owes Deutsche Bank to the labor and regulatory issues affecting his operations in the US and beyond. And foreign countries are already trying to curry favor with Trump by patronizing his US businesses or helping his foreign businesses with permit issues.
Furthermore, Trump didn’t even go as far as saying he outright opposed the House GOP’s move, keeping his criticism limited to the timing, and even suggested they may have a point by saying the ethics watchdog could be “unfair.” For someone predisposed to attack, that’s positively restrained. So don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some kind of bold, principled anti-corruption stance from Donald Trump.
What is significant about Trump’s statement, though, is the fact that, on the very first day of the new Congress, the president-elect is deliberately trying to protect his own brand by distinguishing himself from congressional Republicans.
That should worry the House GOP. This is a matter internal to the House that the president-elect had no obligation to weigh in on. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine that changes in congressional ethics rules will affect Trump’s popularity in any significant way, since the things he and his administration actually do will be much more meaningful on that front. With that in mind, there seemed to be a strong case for Trump to simply be a partisan team player and keep his mouth shut. This controversy seemed likely to burn itself out, since there will be much more news in the days to come.
The practical consequence here is mainly that Trump was perfectly willing to hand House Democrats a line for their eventual attack ads against the incumbent Republicans. Democrats were already licking their chops about the ads that could proclaim that “the first thing Congress member so-and-so did was vote to gut the congressional ethics watchdog.” And if the rules package gutting the office had passed as-is, Democrats could have gotten the bonus of being able to add that this was “a move that even Donald Trump condemned.” (However, by midday Tuesday, Republicans had decided to reverse course and drop the measure for now.)
The bigger picture, though, is that on the very first day of the new Congress, Trump went out of his way to signal his displeasure with something House Republicans chose to do, even though he really had no need to say anything at all. He’s showing that he’ll place his political interest and brand above theirs, even if it has the potential to hurt them.
There have been many questions about how the relationship between an outsider president and this very conservative GOP delegation in Congress would play out. Under one scenario, Trump would essentially be a rubber stamp, approving whatever gets through Congress and keeping his partisan team together.
But Trump’s signaling now that things won’t play out so simply — that instead, he’ll look for opportunities to make himself look good at the House GOP’s expense. It’s something members of Congress should keep in mind as they weigh whether they should become loyal Trump supporters — that is, that he may not be anywhere near so loyal to them in return.