PHILADELPHIA — Congressional Republicans are prepared to pay for Donald Trump’s border wall. They don’t question his unsupported claims about “voter fraud.” They express no concerns over reports that he may reopen the CIA’s controversial secret prisons abroad. They see no need to investigate his international business conflicts.
For now, at least, the Capitol Hill branch of the GOP is willing to march to President Trump’s tune — and more than happy to admit it. That is the clear story emerging from the party’s policy retreat here this week: the degree to which Trump has dictated the agenda the party leadership is assembling for the next 200 days.
“[Trump] gives an order to build a 110-story structure, and he doesn’t tell you how deep to make the foundation. But you know he wants a very tall building,” said Bill Cassidy, a Republican senator from Louisiana, in explaining the congressional GOP’s relationship with the president. “It’s the same thing with us here.”
It’s long been clear that leading Republicans and Trump share several policy goals on the congressional agenda, including dismantling Obamacare and cutting taxes. But there have been big differences, too, in areas such as immigration and social safety net spending. The past few days have revealed just how much leadership is deferring to Trump in those areas.
“I don’t have any advice to give to the president,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at a press conference Thursday when asked if Trump should tone down his rhetoric about demanding that Mexico pay for the wall. “The president can deal with his relations on that issue and on other issues.”
How quickly Trumpian falsehoods get injected into the GOP bloodstream
Over the course of Trump’s first week in office, GOP lawmakers have declined to challenge him on almost everything, including policy moves they once largely opposed, such as scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, as well as some of his most outlandish factual claims.
On Election Day, Trump heard a bizarre story from a Bavarian golfer about voter fraud. He then complained about massive voter fraud in a meeting with congressional leadership on Monday, before tweeting on Wednesday that he’d be “asking for a major investigation” into it:
I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 25, 2017
By Wednesday afternoon, the conspiracy theory had become a story Republican Party officials were unwilling to undercut.
At a press conference, reporters asked Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers whether she had any clue what “voter fraud” Trump was talking about. In her response, McMorris Rodgers did not challenge Trump’s basic assertion.
“I think elections — it’s very important people have faith in the outcome of the elections,” she said. “I’m going to wait and see what his action will be in that regard.”
South Dakota Sen. John Thune took the same question next. Thune, who has been in Congress for 15 years, explained that there are often “irregularities” but that he wasn’t sure of their scale this election cycle.
“I haven’t seen evidence to that effect. I believe that our election system is the cornerstone of our democracy,” he said. “There are always reported, in most elections, irregularities. The scale of those I’m not sure what the answer to that is.”
Saying that he personally hadn’t “seen evidence to that effect” allowed for the possibility that Trump knew something about massive voter fraud that Thune didn’t, even though the overwhelming consensus among experts is that Trump’s claims are pure bunk. And Thune went further, vowing that the congressional GOP would be willing to commit resources to the potential probe.
“If the administration decides to pursue some sort of investigation on that, we will certainly cooperate,” he said.
Republicans have no appetite for investigating Trump’s violation of the Constitution
Just as they’re unwilling to question Trump’s falsehoods about voter fraud, congressional Republicans are unwilling to investigate Trump’s global business empire and the unprecedented potential for conflicts of interest it creates.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight Committee tasked with investigating "waste, fraud, and abuse" in the executive branch, says he has made up his mind: Trump's global financial ties don’t merit a congressional investigation.
"It’s interesting, because under Section 208 of the criminal code, the president is exempt from almost every conflict-of-interest [law]," Chaffetz said in an interview on Tuesday in Washington. "I think the president has a duty and an obligation to live up to the Constitution and the law. And what he’s required to do by law, it appears he’s done.”
Ethics experts like Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, have called Trump's business conflicts "nakedly unconstitutional." Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have repeated called for probes into Trump's tax returns, his global businesses interests, and intelligence reports of Russian interference into the election.
Chaffetz has already concluded those are unnecessary. In the interview, the Utah Republican said Trump isn’t violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution and that the president had complied with all of the necessary finance disclosure laws.
Chaffetz has issued no subpoenas, called for no hearings, and scheduled no meetings to investigate Trump's international business conflicts. (He has asked the General Services Administration for documents related to Trump’s hotel in DC.)
"I’m not interested in engaging in fishing expeditions — I’ll remind people that I never did a quote-unquote ‘investigation’ of Barack Obama when he was president," Chaffetz said. "I am personally not diving into the individual roles of the family members. I haven’t done that with President Obama, and I have not done that with Donald Trump."
Other Republicans on the House Oversight Committee said they agree with Chaffetz’s approach. "It's been about, what, two days [since Trump took office]?” said Iowa's Rep. Rod Blum, a Republican on the committee. “We have to wait to see what happens."
I asked Blum if he thought Republicans should investigate Trump’s potential business conflicts. "That’s the key word in your question, ‘potential.’ It’s potential conflicts of interest. We can't just investigate potential,” Blum told me.
Republicans have been in lockstep behind Trump’s most controversial actions
Trump’s biggest moves on domestic and foreign policy are also being celebrated throughout the Republican caucus.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said she was “heartened” by a Trump administration executive order to consider reopening “black site” prisons abroad. (The secret prisons in foreign countries were used to hold terror suspects while allowing the United States to refuse to “reveal or acknowledge” their existence, according to the Washington Post.)
“I think the executive order is a good executive order, and I think the president is doing the right thing,” Cheney said. “He's saying we are going to do what is necessary to defend the nation and do a review and make sure we are undertaking every possible effort to use every tool at our disposal.”
Similarly, Cheney said she was glad to hear that the Trump administration is considering reviving “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, which legal experts have long concluded amounts to torture. “The ability to get information from people who do not want to provide information and have information that could save American lives and prevent attacks,” she told reporters.
Even Trump’s famous campaign slogan is being incorporated into congressional Republicans’ plans. "With the unified House and unified Senate, this is a unique opportunity to Make America Great Again, as Trump has said," Tennessee Republican Rep. Diane Black told reporters on Wednesday. "That's what this is all about.”