Every stunning decision, discomfiting revelation, and inexplicable comment from President Donald Trump is leaving congressional Republicans increasingly anxious, bewildered, and fuming.
After the turbulent 2016 campaign, most Republicans were willing at the start of the year to set aside any uneasiness about the uncensored celebrity president to pursue their goals of repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes, and disassembling the regulatory state. They made excuses for or tried to ignore the scandal-ridden administration as long as it meant a unified Republican government could legislate.
But the past eight days — when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and shared classified intelligence with Russian officials, followed by a stunning New York Times report that Trump, before firing Comey, pressed him to end a federal investigation — have backed Republicans into a corner.
There is no longer a unified Republican government in Washington.
Leadership and senior members fret over what Trump’s scandals could mean for their policy agenda, and Republicans who were never comfortable with Trump in the first place are beginning to break with the White House.
It’s “becoming much harder to deny that we wouldn't be better off moving a real agenda under a President Pence,” one congressional Republican aide said, “rather than spending all day maneuvering the entire ship of state to try and clean up after this guy.”
Yet some stalwart conservatives are still dismissing the whole ordeal as the product of a media conspiracy and Democratic hysteria: “The White House is besieged by a spectrum of the media that is dedicated to the far left that is relentlessly committed to do everything they can to delegitimize this president,” Rep. Trent Franks, a conservative from Arizona, said.
A few months ago, Trump’s inauguration promised to unlock the path to conservative victories. But a raucous week of head-spinning revelations has led to a dramatic restructuring of Republican politics in the nation’s capital — and nobody is sure where things go from here.
Top Republicans are feeling Trump fatigue, fearing for their agenda
The frustrations of Republican leadership and ideological purists have spilled out into the open in the past few days. As they see it, every day, and every news cycle, consumed by Trump’s alleged indiscretions makes it that much harder for Republicans to stay focused on their ambitious policy agenda.
That agenda was running into trouble already. Repealing and replacing Obamacare should have been a layup but instead took two months to get out of the House and is looking at another tough climb in the Senate. A major tax overhaul, the other big-ticket item, won’t be easy either. Deep divisions exist over key parts of the Republican plan.
Republican leaders don’t talk much about the specifics of the allegations against Trump; their principal frustration seems to be any drag on their policy agenda. “I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda, which is deregulations, tax reform, and repeal and replacing Obamacare,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Bloomberg TV on Tuesday.
The American people “think this is all we’re doing, this is all we’re discussing,” House Speaker Paul Ryan lamented on Wednesday. “That’s not the case. I want the American people to know that we’re busy fixing their problems.”
A certain existential despair has settled over much of the GOP conference.
“It would be nice to have a drama-free week,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said of the never-ending cycle of scandals.
He added that he doesn’t know if it will end.
“We could do with less drama. It would be nice,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who survived reelection last year in a swing state that Trump unexpectedly won. “We’ve got enormous challenges facing this nation. We should be focused on those.”
It’s now an open topic of discussion among K Street Republicans and staff on Capitol Hill that it would be easier to achieve their policy goals if Vice President Mike Pence were in the Oval Office instead.
One Republican lobbyist challenged a reporter: “What percentage of congressional Republicans would rather have President Pence by July Fourth?”
“How does this get better?” the lobbyist said of the Trump scandals. “He’s 70 years old. He is who he is. He’s not changing.”
Republican leaders aren’t yet truly breaking from Trump. Ryan reaffirmed his confidence in the president on Wednesday. Trump is still there to sign any legislation that they can clear through Congress and put on his desk.
But they’re choosing the words a little more carefully and taking steps — such as Ryan’s endorsement of obtaining the memo Comey wrote that reportedly detailed Trump’s pressure on him — in order to, as so many Republicans put it around the Capitol Wednesday, get the facts.
Vulnerable and moderate Republicans are openly breaking from Trump
Leadership may be still standing behind the president, but some Republicans are speaking out against Trump — and a few have entertained the i-word: impeachment.
One common thread among many of them: They’re facing a tough race for reelection, in some cases in districts where Hillary Clinton prevailed last year. These members are outliers; most Republican members of Congress represent safe Republican seats. But they’re making their voices heard.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who is expected to face a tough race for reelection next year, said this on CNN Tuesday night:
Any effort to stop the federal government from conducting an investigation, any effort to dissuade federal agents from proceeding with an investigation, is very serious and could be construed as obstruction of justice. ... Obstruction of justice — in the case of Nixon, in the case of Clinton in the late ’90s — has been considered an impeachable offense.
Other vulnerable Republicans are now asking for an independent commission or a special prosecutor to be appointed to probe Trump’s various scandals, from links between his campaign and Russia to the Comey firing.
"I can't defend or explain tonight's actions or timing of the firing of FBI Director James Comey,” Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), who represents a swing district, said in a statement last week, adding of the Russia probe: “There must be an independent investigation that the American people can trust."
Some Republicans speaking out for an independent investigation are those who never liked Trump much in the first place — perhaps emboldened by news that his approval rating is tumbling even among some of their voters.
A new Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found Trump’s approval rating already at a new low. (The poll was taken before the revelation that Trump may have revealed classified information to the Russians and pressured Comey to nix an ongoing probe.) The number of Trump voters who strongly approve of his job performance has also slipped, from 49 percent to 42 percent.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), already considered a swing vote on the health care overhaul, signaled her openness to a special prosecutor on Wednesday.
Like many Alaskans, I’m concerned about the continuous and often conflicting reports about President Trump, the FBI and Russia. pic.twitter.com/XENI02GdBT— Sen. Lisa Murkowski (@lisamurkowski) May 17, 2017
“I believe that the administration needs to reboot its efforts,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins, another moderate Republican who has been apprehensive about supporting key Trump agenda items, such as Obamacare repeal, told reporters on Wednesday.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who never had an affinity for Trump, is openly drawing comparisons to Watergate.
For Senate moderates and for iconoclasts at the other end of the political spectrum, such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the political downside seems to have evaporated and the facts have become too serious to ignore. As Vox previously noted:
Amash of Michigan gave reporters an affirmative “yes” Wednesday, when asked if the allegations from former FBI Director James Comey’s memo indicating that Trump urged the FBI to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn would be grounds for impeachment.
Still, many, perhaps most, Republicans are stuck in the middle, not openly defending the president but instead insisting that they need to wait for the full facts to emerge.
“I think it’s important for us to ascertain where the actual facts are,” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott told reporters on Wednesday.
Hardliners are sticking by their president, and see impeachment calls as a left-wing witch hunt
Within the right wing, perhaps the deepest reservoir of Trump support, lawmakers are holding out support for the president. They are miles away from their colleagues in the middle calling for a special prosecutor and openly theorizing about impeachment.
Many of them are representing safe conservative districts and are speaking to a base likely consuming these scandals through Fox News or Breitbart — outlets that have spent the news cycle downplaying the allegations and alleging that members of the “deep state” leaked the information to smear the president.
Instead of a spiraling scandal, they see a conspiracy.
“It’s incumbent upon all of Americans to recognize the forces at play here and to ascertain the fundamental motivation of those forces,” said Franks, the Arizona Republican who blamed the media for the chaos.
As Rep. Louie Gohmert, another Freedom Caucus member, told reporters, per Talking Points Memo: “Sounds like fake news.”
While Trump’s voters still overwhelming support the president, Americans have begun forming more negative opinions about Trump’s possible connections to Russia across party lines.
Even so, Republicans see the opportunism from Trump’s opponents to exploit the Russia scandal for their own gains, without context.
“Are the Russians our friends? The answer is no. Do we need to look at them with a very diagnostic eye? Without a doubt,” Rep. Mark Meadows, chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said. “But then again, this whole narrative with the Russian influence — when there was a whole lot less to go on, has been there; this is a narrative that apparently polls well.”
As for impeachment, many won’t even use the word.
“No one is talking about that other than Democrats and Mr. Amash — and there seems to be a lot of qualifiers there.” Rep. Jim Jordan, a staunch conservative from Ohio, said. “None of us in the Freedom Caucus are talking about that. ... That’s not going anywhere.”
At least not without the facts first.
“When we get to the bottom of it, then we can make the appropriate decisions, and sometimes those are difficult and hard decisions you have to make,” Meadows said.