With his legislative agenda stalled, President Donald Trump might now go to war against congressional Republicans — and win.
That’s the provocative argument Dave Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, made on his excellently named blog “Honest Graft” this week.
“The presence of serious conflict between Trump and congressional Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell, is now undeniable,” Hopkins writes. And, he adds, “Wherever one's own sympathies might lie in such a battle, Trump simply holds heavier artillery and superior field position.”
There’s little modern precedent for a total break between a president and his own party’s leaders in Congress. When it comes to legislation, nominees, and positioning for the midterm elections, these actors ordinarily have powerful incentives to try to work together.
But Trump is no ordinary president. So I called up Hopkins to talk through just how likely a falling-out between Trump and congressional Republicans is — and how it might actually play out. (This interview has been condensed and restructured for clarity.)
Why Trump and Republican leaders are increasingly squabbling
For much of the year, it’s seemed that Trump, McConnell, and Ryan have had powerful incentives to work together rather than fight each other. If Trump wants to get his appointees confirmed, he needs McConnell in the Senate. If McConnell wants Trump to appoint people he likes, he needs to have good relations with Trump.
And they all have important personal stakes in the Republican Party doing well in 2018 — McConnell and Ryan want to keep their majorities, and Trump wants to avoid a Democrat-controlled house of Congress dogging him with investigations, subpoenas, and so on.
So why do you think they might have a falling-out anyway?
I think what we’re seeing now is a realization on the part of both Trump and congressional Republicans that there may be this fight in the party over whose fault it was that the agenda didn’t sail right through. Neither side wants to take the blame, because if you do take the blame, there may be repercussions in the future from primary challenges, from challenges to leadership positions, from a party base that is exasperated with its own elected officials.
I do think that from the point of view of the Republicans in Congress, the congressional leadership, they would very much prefer not to openly break with Trump. They will say nasty things about him on background, but they understand it does them no good to wind up in an open war with the White House.
A lot of those juicy quotes on background, I think, are attempts to provide a kind of strategic guidance to him. “Stop saying these things about Charlottesville and start talking about tax reform!” They’re rooting for him to succeed because they do understand that their own fate is linked to his.
But from Trump’s point of view, he was deferential to the congressional leadership on the legislative agenda and the legislative strategy, with the idea that if he let them figure that stuff out, then they knew best how to push this stuff through and get it to him to sign, and everyone would be happy. And that has not worked out.
It also seems that when someone criticizes Trump, he just instinctually feels that it’s necessary to hit back much harder. We’ve seen that when McConnell chided him for inexperience, when Jeff Flake published that very critical book, and so on.
Trump seems to view these as a challenge to his own dominance in the party, and he could be trying to bloody up a couple of people in the party that have criticized him, to send a message to the others.
There may be some strategy there. But there’s also, I think, some emotion. There are a lot of things that Trump is going to fail at during his presidency, and that he’s going to be frustrated by.
Why Trump may have the advantage in a fight against Republican leaders
So if this war really does heat up, why do you think Trump has a good shot of winning it?
Obviously, it depends to some extent on how we define victory here. In some ways there may be no winners in the Republican Party if Trump goes to war, because it makes it very difficult for legislation to get passed and for either side to realize its legislative goals.
But in terms of where blame gets laid for the failures, and for the inability of the Republican agenda to actually be enacted, Trump does hold some advantages.
Within the Republican Party, Trump’s power remains relatively strong. So that’s where he can have some successes. He may not get his border wall, and he may not get his Obamacare repeal plan. But he might be able to make Jeff Flake lose his primary.
If that’s what he turns his presidency toward, as a set of goals, he might really notch some victories at Ryan and McConnell’s expense.
But if there hypothetically was some sort of total falling-out between, let’s say, McConnell and Trump, doesn’t McConnell have a lot of his disposal too? What can he do here?
The obvious answer is that McConnell and the Senate could make Trump’s life more difficult on Russia in a way they haven’t yet. They could appoint an independent commission, for example, to look into the Russia case and take it out of the partisan committee process. And that would be a clear message to Trump, or it would certainly make Trump very, very unhappy. They could kill off any elements of Trump’s agenda that are not their own agenda, so they could say infrastructure isn’t happening. They could make it harder for Trump to get his executive branch appointments through. So there are things they could do.
But again, they understand at some level that their fate is linked to Trump’s. And if Trump goes down in flames in a big scandal, whether it’s Russia or something else, if his popularity continues to decline, if he’s seen as ineffectual — well, Trump’s got three years left before he has to worry about reelection, but most of the Republicans on the Hill are up next year, and they’ll take the brunt of a lot of that.
If there is a fight, it’s a fight where Trump holds most of the ammunition. So that’s why I think they’re mostly not responding in kind to his provocations.
How the Russia scandal could play into Trump’s decision-making
I’ve always thought that Trump clearly realizes that a Democratic takeover of a house of Congress would be a real disaster for him on multiple fronts. The subpoenas would start flying, and I assume more would proceed on the Russia investigation front.
But we’re hearing these stories this week that Trump has complained to McConnell already that the Republicans in Congress right now aren’t doing enough to protect him on Russia.
I think it’s probably the case that having Republicans in control is much better for Trump than the prospects of a Democratic takeover, especially when it comes to the Russia scandal and the prospect of impeachment. But it also may be that Trump doesn’t quite grasp that — or that he still sees what the Republicans are doing on Russia as threatening enough to him.
There was a Politico piece yesterday that suggested he’s screaming at senators that they passed the Russia sanctions bill, that they’re not looking out for him enough on the Russia investigation.
That obviously is a complicating factor here, if Trump’s resentment toward the Republican Congress is in fact privately compounded by the Russia issue, which he has not talked as much about publicly but seems to be furious about privately.
Whether Trump is strategic enough to realize that what he’s doing is risking the Republican majority in the House, I think, is hard for us to tell from this vantage point.
And of course, November 2018 may seem like it’s just around the corner for members of Congress, but for Trump that may be a long way away. He might be thinking about what’s going on right now, what’s happening over the next couple of weeks.
Why even Republican senators might shy away from standing up to Trump
The strongest counterargument to the idea that Trump could win this fight, I think, is the six-year terms of the Senate.
A third of the Senate won’t be on the ballot again until 2022. That gives them more freedom to think about the longer term and how their actions will be viewed in a post-Trump world if that world should come about, one way or another. And there seems to be very little that Trump could do to win a showdown against, say, John McCain, who almost surely won’t run again.
So when I think about this, Trump taking out Jeff Flake in a primary is plausible to me. Maybe Trump could even run up a drumbeat of conservative media criticism against Mitch McConnell, who himself is up in 2020 in a state where Trump is really popular. But the Senate seems to be institutionally empowered to better withstand short-term pressure from Trump.
It’s also the case that the Republican senators either individually or collectively still don’t want to take the fall for the failure of the conservative agenda more broadly. I think they’re very sensitive to that, whether or not that imperils their immediate reelection chances. We saw this on health care, where the Senate didn’t want to be the last ones holding the hot potato.
The Senate is not going to want to be the villain in the story from the point of view of conservative activists, conservative media, critics, Trump supporters nationwide. They don’t want this to end up being a case where, “Gee, Trump really tried his best, but the bad old Senate couldn’t get it together to pass his bills.”
And so that, I think, is part of the dynamic here. It’s hard to understand the Republican Party these days without understanding the conservative media and activist universe that Republican elected officials are responsive to and are connected to.
So I think part of this struggle is really a struggle ultimately over who’s going to bear responsibility, when the tale gets told within the Republican Party at the end of this presidency about what happened. How much of it is going to be a story about Congress letting Trump down, and how much of it is going to be a story about Trump’s own failures?