In the year since Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, party leaders have been reluctant to challenge a man who has formed a tight bond with conservative voters, even when he upset party orthodoxies and norms of presidential behavior.
But that reticence is breaking down. A convergence of contentious issues, as well as embarrassing infighting and shake-ups at the White House, have a number of Republicans suddenly in open resistance to President Trump on a number of fronts.
The most dramatic moment came in the early-morning hours Friday, when Sen. John McCain, an ailing war hero and onetime Republican presidential standard-bearer, joined two other GOP dissidents, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, to cast the deciding vote to kill a scaled-back plan to dismantle tenets of the Affordable Care Act — and with it, perhaps, Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare.
But the signs of resistance went further.
Nearly every Republican in Congress voted with Democrats this week to approve legislation tying the president’s hands on a major foreign policy issue, making it harder for him to ease sanctions against Russia amid lawmakers’ concerns about Trump’s friendly posture toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. Late Friday, the White House put out a statement saying Trump would sign the legislation; his veto would have been easily overridden.
Since Wednesday, some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have pushed back at Trump’s surprise announcement on Twitter of a ban on transgender people in the military. The critics, including McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and an array of conservative senators, objected both to the substance of the ban — which threatened the status of thousands of active-duty service members — and to the way in which it was unveiled.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Trump would have “holy hell to pay” if he fired Sessions, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned that he would refuse to hold hearings this year to confirm a new attorney general.
Graham went further, saying that should Trump try to dismiss Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice, it could spell “the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.”
“What he’s interjecting is turning democracy upside down,” Graham told reporters, adding that he was considering legislation to prevent Trump from dismissing Mueller and shutting down the Russia investigation.
Political veterans and Republican critics say Trump’s seeming inability to focus on his policy agenda, amid the distractions of investigations, media baiting and staff dysfunction, leave him little leverage with Congress. Beyond that, his threats against some Republicans and shows of disloyalty toward allies like Sessions give lawmakers little faith that Trump will back them if they need political cover for tough votes.
“Trump’s approval rating is in the 30s, he uses his bully pulpit to beat up on staff and he’s got no policy agenda,” said Rory Cooper, a former Republican leadership aide and George W. Bush administration official who has been a Trump critic.
“President Trump’s closing argument on healthcare was that his staff and attorney general are not trusted,” Cooper added. “It’s clear that members of Congress have no support or leadership from the White House.”
Many conservatives had been willing to put up with Trump’s erratic governance in the hopes he could at least deliver on longstanding conservative priorities. But Friday’s defeat on the healthcare measure, after Republicans’ seven years of promises to repeal Obamacare, left many despairing that other promises, especially on a tax overhaul, could be imperiled.
“The president told everyone that only he could do the job and he would drain the swamp,” wrote Erick Erickson, an influential conservative radio host and blogger. “Instead, he’s dammed up the swamp, put a party boat on it, and has turned his attention to Twitter.”
Trump’s approval rating is in the 30s, he uses his bully pulpit to beat up on staff and he’s got no policy agenda.
Trump, as he often does, blamed Democrats. But he upbraided Republicans as well on Friday, both on Twitter and during a Long Island speech that was supposed to be about cracking down on criminal gangs.
“They should have approved healthcare last night, but you can’t have everything,” Trump said in New York. “They’ve been working on that for seven years. Can you believe that? But we’ll get it done. I said from the beginning, let Obamacare implode and then do it.”
Individual Republican lawmakers have walked a careful line with Trump throughout his first six months — siding with him on many issues and withholding criticism on others, while disagreeing at times to show their independence, especially in opposition to Trump’s proposed deep cuts in domestic and international aid programs.
But the healthcare bill proved more complicated to navigate. Polls showed that Republican efforts at repeal were widely unpopular, including among some conservatives, and prominent Republican governors were strongly opposed. Yet the party had promised “repeal and replace” since 2010.
John Weaver, a former longtime political consultant to McCain, said of the senator’s break with Trump on the healthcare bill, after two earlier votes in support, “I don’t think he took any joy in it.”
“But,” Weaver said, “I think he wanted to send a clear signal that what’s happening in the White House is not normal and what’s happening in the Congress is not normal.”
Republican critics accuse Trump and his administration officials of combining arrogance with ineptitude, especially in how they carried out threats to wavering senators such as Murkowski and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller. Murkowski suggested to reporters that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened federal funding to her state, which is heavily dependent on it.
The Murkowski threat was particularly striking, because she is chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Zinke’s department. Murkowski held fast.
“Who ever heard of a Cabinet secretary threatening the chairman of the oversight committee of his department?” Weaver said. “It’s like ‘Dumb and Dumber’ merged with ‘The Godfather’ here.”
Still, Trump has hardly lost his ability to work with his party. Many in Congress continue to fear his ability to stir their most passionate partisans — who continue to back him strongly — and to encourage primary challenges for their seats.
Also, Trump’s allies in outside groups already have shown a willingness to spend money on political advertising against wayward Republicans. A pro-Trump group ran ads against Heller in June, during an earlier stage of the healthcare effort, though it pulled them after objections from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But a Republican strategist with close ties to the White House, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said that weapon would be back on the table for the 2018 congressional election campaigns.
At the least, Trump’s hold on the GOP’s base could protect him against threats posed by the Russia investigations by Mueller and the congressional committees. But Trump is seeing that it would not be easy to thwart Mueller’s investigation by firing Sessions and getting his replacement to eliminate Mueller.
Republican senators have their guard up generally against presidential recess appointments, which allow presidents to fill jobs temporarily without Senate confirmation. If both parties agree, a senator will stay in town on a rotating basis to technically avoid having the Senate in recess.
Republicans did that to prevent President Obama from avoiding Senate confirmations and filling vacancies with recess appointments. But now they have signaled they are not willing to let Trump undercut their authority either.
Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.