Their relationship at a low, Trump and Congress cast blame on each other heading into break
They’re going away mad.
As President Trump and the Republicans who control Congress leave Washington for their separate August breaks, theirs is a marriage on the rocks, an estrangement that bodes ill for the party’s ambitious agenda going forward.
Lawmakers and the president blame each other for the failure over six months to make progress on promises made to conservative voters in one election after the other, notably the vow to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare. Looking ahead, it is increasingly apparent that Republican lawmakers doubt whether Trump can lead on overhauling the tax code or enacting an infrastructure plan, two other priorities atop the president’s agenda.
While Trump regularly slaps Congress on Twitter and at partisan rallies as recently as Thursday, only a handful of Republicans on Capitol Hill confront him openly, given his continued popularity among conservative voters. But their frustration is palpable that in this first year — when a new president usually exerts maximum leverage — they have little to show for the fact that Republicans control the White House and Congress for the first time in more than a decade.
The president goaded the Senate into delaying its summer recess by two weeks, mainly to pass a healthcare alternative to Obamacare. After initially agreeing, McConnell decided to call it quits Thursday and sent his colleagues home, the healthcare bill all but given up for dead. Trump will depart Friday for more than two weeks at his New Jersey golf club.
Perhaps emboldened by Trump’s steadily slumping poll numbers, lawmakers are showing an increasing tendency to go their own way, even as he taunts them and threatens their jobs. They will work with Trump when it suits their interest, Republicans say, but will not be corralled by him.
“I wouldn’t say ignore the White House, but certainly not be distracted by it,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Senate Republican, in describing the emerging approach.
Thune compared the relationship to bickering relatives.
“It’s like any family — you have your days where you don’t get along as well and you might say things you later regret. In the long term it’s advantageous for us to work together,” he said.
What is striking at this early point in the Trump presidency is that, rather than speaking of him as their leader, many lawmakers view Trump in a strictly utilitarian way — as Thune put it, “somebody in the White House who will sign legislation into law.”
Some Republicans, protective of Congress’s prerogatives, say they welcome the new dynamic.
“Honestly, I enjoy the fact that Congress, the Senate in particular, is charting a course, developing legislation and — let’s face it — leading on all of these issues,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The latest example: Trump’s big announcement Wednesday of a plan to curtail legal immigration. That was a signature piece of his campaign platform, yet Trump held a White House event to embrace two Republican senators’ legislation, not to unveil a plan of his own. The White House billed it as a transformational policy, but that boast received little more than eye rolls on Capitol Hill.
The bill’s prospects are dim there, regardless of the fact that Trump’s senior policy advisor was so audacious on his boss’ behalf as to issue political threats against members of Congress from the White House press lectern.
“Ultimately, members of Congress will have a choice to make,” Stephen Miller told White House reporters Wednesday. “They can either vote with the interests of U.S. citizens and U.S. workers, or they can vote against their interests, and whatever happens as a result of that I think would be somewhat predictable.”
The fraught relations in the Republican family, building for months, burst into public view after the punishing defeat on healthcare last week. That was followed this week by a reluctant Trump’s signature on a sanctions bill penalizing Russia that ties his hands in a major area of foreign policy. Had he not signed it, Congress would easily have overridden his veto, Republicans said.
Many Republican lawmakers, in fact, cited Russian sanctions as a top accomplishment.
Trump called Republican senators “fools” in a tweet last weekend, criticizing them for their inability to pass legislation — a charge his press secretary repeatedly echoed from the White House briefing room. By Thursday morning, a day after he signed the Russia sanctions bill, Trump was again stewing.
“Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” he tweeted. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!”
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who helped sink the Obamacare repeal effort, fired back with his own tweet: “You can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors & threatening our allies.”
McCain followed up with a news release in which he forcefully criticized Trump for a lack of “policy and strategic guidance” in the war in Afghanistan.
Sen. Mike Rounds, a former Republican governor of South Dakota, said the first half of the year showed Congress the importance of “taking back some of its responsibilities” that it had lost.
Rounds called the bipartisan sanctions bill “good example of Congress saying, ‘We have a say in this also.’ That, I think might be more of a harbinger of things to come than some people might think.”
But Congress’ action is still a big risk with voters, especially with Republicans who believed that Trump and their party’s lawmakers would be able to move quickly on a conservative wish list that piled up during the Obama years.
“I’m not sure that it’s going to be a pleasant recess,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime Republican consultant in South Carolina. “What we said all along was when they get the House and the Senate, we’ll make these changes. And so far we haven’t really seen a whole lot, other than not getting stuff done.”
Felkel says he believes lawmakers will get the bulk of the blame from the party’s core supporters. Even though Trump’s popularity is below 40% with the general public, it’s much higher in many Republicans’ congressional districts and in states where the party dominates.
“They aren’t pushing back yet because they’re trying to figure out how he’s being perceived in their district,” Felkel said.
That’s why few lawmakers have gone as far as Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, who this week released a book blaming his party for its failure to challenge Trump more forcefully, and characterizing that inaction as a danger to the republic.
Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist, says support for Trump among Republicans in his state depends on the district. Lawmakers from the state’s more urban southeast, where Trump’s supporters are fewer and less committed, are keeping far more distance from Trump than those from other parts of the state, especially to the west, where lawmakers still see great advantage to connecting themselves with the president.
“It is a phenomenon, I think, of how strong Trump’s base has remained in their loyalty,” Gerow said. “They are passionate, and any word of criticism, even from friends of the administration, is met with vitriol.”
Recent polling shows Trump’s standing with the broader American public, never particularly robust, has eroded, with signs of weakness appearing among Republican voters.
Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans now approve of Trump’s performance in office, half a dozen recent surveys indicate, while nearly 6 in 10 have a negative opinion.
More troubling for the White House than the size of the drop is which voters have begun souring on Trump.
Polls show that the share of voters who say they strongly approve of Trump’s performance has continued to decline. An increasing number of Republican voters have shifted from offering him strong approval to offering a more tepid level of support.
In polls by SurveyMonkey, which uses very large samples of respondents that allow for analysis of subgroups, moderate Republicans have noticeably started to leave the fold. In February, about 80% of them said they supported Trump; by this last week, that support had fallen to 67%.
At the same time, the share of people who say that Trump “can get things done” has dropped by about 10 points since early March; only 28% of people in the most recent SurveyMonkey poll agreed with that statement. Since that figure is smaller than Trump’s overall job approval, it indicates that even some of the president’s supporters have begun to doubt his effectiveness.
Times staff writer David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.
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