GOP Congress and Trump: Can this marriage be saved?

From the first days, relations between Republican congressional leaders and the newly elected President Trump showed obvious strain.

The week after Trump’s inauguration, Republican members of Congress went on a retreat to Philadelphia. Rather than tout their agenda, they had to dodge questions about his statements alleging that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016, costing him the popular vote, and a proposal then circulating at the White House that could have authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to use torture against people being interrogated.

"This is obviously a transition that’s underway here," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the third-ranking Republican in the chamber. "I expect you’ll see probably better coordination in time."

Time proved Thune a poor prophet.

Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.

FROM WARY TO ESTRANGED

For a time, Republicans fended off concerns about Trump’s sometimes erratic manner by focusing on all the legislation they would achieve. Healthcare would their first success, they declared.

In March, House Speaker Paul Ryan, rhapsodizing about the imminent chance to cut spending on Medicaid, reminded a conservative writer that he had “been thinking about this stuff for a long time."

“We've been dreaming of this since I've been around — since you and I were drinking at a keg,” he said.

But radically overhauling the nation’s healthcare system turned out to be Kryptonite for Republicans — robbing their majority of its power and leaving it weak and at odds with itself.

Not long after making his remark about his college dreams of reworking the social safety net, Ryan had to pull the healthcare bill from the House floor when he realized his divided caucus could not pass it. He resurrected the bill in May, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) failed at his effort to push the measure through his chamber the next month, guaranteeing a debilitating, summer-long debate.

Each time healthcare dominated the headlines, Trump’s standing in the polls dropped. His job approval, which had plateaued for much of the late spring and summer at about 40%, dropped noticeably below that level in the last couple of weeks. So did measures of how many Americans say he can “get things done” or “keep his promises.”

As spring turned to summer, Republican members of Congress learned several hard truths about their partner at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

When things went bad, they found, he would blame them — calling the House healthcare bill “mean,” for example, as its unpopularity became evident. When legislation needed public support, he couldn’t help much, in part because he appeared to them to lack understanding of what the bill would do. And when push came to shove, he couldn’t do much to hurt lawmakers, especially senators, who need to win statewide races and can’t rely on heavily Republican districts.

Those lessons all contributed to last week’s defeat of the Republican healthcare measures in the Senate. Trump ineffectually demanded that the Senate stay in session to try again. Lawmakers ignored him, wrapping up work on Thursday and heading home. Trump, too, prepared to leave Washington today for a vacation at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J.

As they left town, the relationship between the Republican Congress and president resembled nothing so much as a marriage on the rocks, as Lisa Mascaro, Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett wrote. Indeed, on a host of issues, Republicans have begun resisting Trump, Bierman and Bennett wrote.

The first half of a president’s first year has historically been the most productive time for new legislation. Congress has now ended that period with almost nothing to show save a relatively noncontroversial expansion of veterans benefits and a bill that Trump reluctantly signed that ties his hands on any effort to lift economic sanctions against Russia.

His signing of the Russia sanctions bill brought a jibe from that country’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, which seemed aimed directly at the president’s ego, accusing him of showing “total weakness.”

Even before Trump signed the sanctions law, Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced Moscow’s retaliation, ordering a dramatic cut in the U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia, Laura King and Sabra Ayres reported. Stuck between Congress and Putin, Trump was left with only hard choices on Russia, Bennett and Bierman wrote.

As that unfolded, Republican senators were doing little to disguise their belief that Trump was, at best, a problem to be managed, rather than an asset.

Few Republican lawmakers want to directly criticize the president. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is the biggest exception, with a new book that criticizes his party for being in “denial” about Trump’s problems. As Mascaro noted, however, Flake is a longtime critic, a “never Trump” advocate during the campaign.

For most Republicans, the strategy now appears to be to act as much as possible as if Trump isn’t there.

I wouldn’t say ignore the White House, but certainly not be distracted by it,” Thune said now.

None of that bodes well for the party’s hopes of passing major tax legislation this fall, a goal that has historically required strong executive leadership to achieve.

Follow these discussions as they continue on the Sunday shows, too. Keep track with our coverage on the Essential Washington blog.

TRUMP TURNS TO A GENERAL

In speeches, interviews and his ubiquitous Twitter feed, Trump insists that there is “no chaos” in the White House and that he has accomplished more than most of his predecessors.

His actions show that he understands that’s not entirely true. The past week and a half brought not one, but two White House shakeups. First came the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director, followed quickly by the ousting of Reince Priebus as chief of staff.

Within days, it was Scaramucci out as retired Gen. John Kelly replaced Priebus and began to exert control.

As the week developed, Kelly’s influence could repeatedly be seen:

Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, fired several aides who had previously been protected by Trump’s strategist, Steve Bannon, and other senior White House officials.

One of the ousted National Security Council officials, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, played a central role in one of the more bizarre episodes of the spring — the visit to the White House by the head of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who ominously announced that he had discovered evidence that might point to misconduct by Obama administration officials in the handling of classified information.

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a former leader of the most conservative wing of the House Republican caucus, abruptly changed his position on increasing the federal debt limit. He announced Thursday that everyone at the White House, including him, now wanted Congress to quickly pass an increase without encumbering it with debates over further spending cuts.

Raising the debt ceiling will be the top priority when Congress returns to work in September. The government is projected to hit its current debt limit near the end of that month.

Kelly reportedly contacted Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to tell him that his job was safe for now. Trump has noticeably stopped publicly berating Sessions, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that the president has “100% confidence” in his Cabinet. She also poured cold water on the rumor that Trump would move Sessions to head the Homeland Security department to replace Kelly.

Sessions, perhaps in an effort to placate Trump, announced Friday that he’s stepping up efforts to combat leaks of classified information. He also threatened to make it easier for prosecutors to go after journalists.

And White House officials were reporting that the flow of information into the Oval Office was now being more strictly supervised, as Kelly tries to keep spurious reports and odd distractions out of the president’s inbox.

Kelly’s history as a Marine commander in the Iraq war is well known. But two other parts of his resume may be more relevant to his new job. He’s spent years as the Marine Corps liaison to Capitol Hill, including a stint as the top legislative assistant to the commandant of the Corps. He also served as senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who, as White House chief of staff two decades ago, brought order to the chaotic first term of President Clinton.

MUELLER UPS THE PRESSURE

One thing that Kelly can’t control, however, is the pace of the investigation headed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election and possible wrongdoing by Trump’s associates.

The past week brought several new developments:

The White House admitted that Trump helped write his son's misleading initial statement about a 2016 meeting with Russians, showing that the president was directly involved in what investigators might view as an effort to cover up the import of that session.

That meeting now appears to be a focus of attention by Mueller, who has convened a grand jury to assist with the investigation, David Cloud reported. It’s a strong signal that the probe is accelerating, not going away as Trump would like.

White House lawyers now say that Trump is not thinking about trying to fire Mueller. As recently as last week, however, Scaramucci said that Trump had raised the issue. If Trump does want to fire the special counsel, David Savage explains, the intricate rules designed to protect his independence may not be enough to block the president.

Two separate, bipartisan groups of senators have introduced bills to write protections for Mueller into law. Those may not be voted on anytime soon, but they provide further signals from Capitol Hill that Trump should avoid tangling with the special counsel.

Another lawmaker’s name keeps coming up in connection with the Russia investigation. Here’s Sarah Wire’s timeline of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s Russian connections.

WHAT NEXT FOR HEALTHCARE?

A few hours after Sen. John McCain’s thumbs down doomed the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Mascaro posed the question: did McCain's vote open the door for Senate bipartisanship?

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair and top Democrat of the Senate panel that handles most healthcare issues, quickly announced that they would begin trying a bipartisan approach, Noam Levey wrote. But the effort faces a number of big hurdles.

The biggest problem, as Levey noted, is that the debate of the past seven months has made clear that Americans want a healthcare safety net and don’t like the sort of cuts that Ryan said he dreamed about as a college student.

But a large chunk of the Republican electorate dissents from that majority. There are fixes to the healthcare law that Democrats and Republicans could agree on, but whether a majority of Republican lawmakers can afford, politically, to adopt them, rather than insist on repeal, remains unknown.

The other big unknown is whether the administration will try to undermine the law. Trump has until late this month for the next big decision — whether to continue making so-called cost-sharing reduction payments, which go to insurers to reimburse them for keeping deductibles and co-payments down for low- and middle-income consumers.

Here’s a Q&A on what the administration could do to undermine the Affordable Care Act if Trump chooses to do so.

A NEW PROPOSAL ON IMMIGRATION, A RENEWED FIGHT OVER CLEAN AIR AND THE LATEST FROM THE MONEY RACE

For years, a standard talking point for Republicans was that while the party opposed illegal immigration, it supported immigrants coming into the U.S. legally. Trump’s top domestic policy aide, Steven Miller, never accepted that position. He has spent years advocating sharp cuts in legal immigration. This week, Brian Bennett reported, his efforts got official White House backing as Trump signed on to a bill that would slash the number of legal immigrants allowed into the U.S.

The bill, proposed by Sens. David Purdue (R-Ga.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), faces a very steep climb in Congress — right now, it probably couldn’t get 40 votes in the Senate, let alone a majority. But it’s a strong sign of Trump’s desire to appeal to his core supporters on a signature campaign issue.

A measure to significantly cut back the reach of the Clean Air Act has a much stronger chance in Congress, Evan Halper wrote. The bill has passed the House. If it clears the Senate, it would have a big impact on efforts to clean the air in the state’s dirtiest areas, most notably the San Joaquin Valley.

Halper also took a look at the pastor who has been leading Bible study for senior Trump administration officials. He’s a familiar figure in California, Ralph Drollinger, a 7-foot-1 former UCLA basketball player turned evangelist who gained notoriety in Sacramento a decade ago for denouncing Catholicism and telling lawmakers that mothers do not belong in elected office.

Tracy Wilkinson and Bill Hennigan examined the Trump administration’s mixed messages on North Korea.

And Wilkinson looked at the “death by a thousand cuts” that the State Department had suffered under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

David Cloud checked in on a story that generated many headlines last year and found that the Pentagon missed the deadline for finishing its review of California National Guard bonuses. Last year, lawmakers angrily ordered the review after Cloud wrote about the Pentagon’s efforts to claw back bonus payments from thousands of service members who may have received them improperly.

Cathy Decker looked at why two Republican women who helped stop the GOP effort on healthcare were overshadowed by a man.

Decker also attended a series of focus groups in Arizona and found that voters are still angry, and they’re now aiming more of that anger at Trump.

And Seema Mehta and Maloy Moore reported on Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s big, early lead in the race to raise money to run for governor. Newsom easily outpaced former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, even in Hollywood, the latest campaign finance disclosure forms show.

TRUMP’S FALSE STATEMENTS

Finally, how many untruths did Trump utter in his interview with the Wall Street Journal? We count at least five.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS

Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter

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