Republicans in Congress have tried to stick with President Trump in hopes that despite politically damaging outbursts from the White House, his pen would ultimately be able to sign their legislative agenda into law.
But in the aftermath of Trump’s controversial response to the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., that promise seems ever more distant.
Congressional Republicans are now coming to grips with the reality that they are increasingly on their own, unable to rely on the president to helm their party, but without having powerful enough congressional leaders to bring bickering factions together.
That has dimmed prospects of passing big-ticket items such as tax reform, an infrastructure package or a new healthcare law.
At best, when lawmakers return to work next month, they hope to agree to keep the government funded past the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 and not provoke a financial crisis with a prolonged standoff over raising the limit on federal debt, which the government will hit sometime in early October.
“The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters Thursday after a meeting at the Chattanooga Rotary Club.
“I do think there need to be some radical changes,” Corker said. “We need for him to be successful.”
The latest Trump outbursts solidified the gloomy assessment from many Republicans.
“It codified it: This administration has no hope of accomplishing any major policy goals,” said longtime Republican strategist Rick Tyler, a former top advisor to Newt Gingrich and to Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid.
“We don’t have to wonder about it. It’s like driving your car past empty — the motor’s going to stop, and it’s not going to go forward anymore,” Tyler said. “These are the laws of physics, and legislation’s very much the same.”
Trump has emerged less a partner to the Republican majority in Congress than an unpredictable bystander, welcoming lawmakers to lunch one day, bashing them on Twitter the next.
Several senators got the latest taste of that Thursday, when Trump swiftly turned on them after they critiqued his response to the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va.
Trump attacked both Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on Twitter Thursday morning — assigning a derisive nickname, “Flake Jeff Flake,” to the Arizonan and praising one of the candidates lining up to run against him, Kelli Ward, a former state senator who last month predicted that John McCain, the state’s senior senator who is being treated for cancer, would die soon and said that she should be appointed to replace him.
The praise for Ward marked an extremely rare presidential intervention into a primary against an incumbent of his own party — a move almost certain to increase tensions.
Graham’s response was swift.
“You are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country,” Graham tweeted, referring to the congratulatory messages Trump received from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
“For the sake of our Nation — as our President — please fix this. History is watching us all.”
Rank-and-file Republicans, and other party leaders, are less likely to be as sharply critical. Many remain hopeful Trump — or his legislative team members, who are close to Vice President Mike Pence — can still help push parts of their agenda to passage.
But the payoff Republicans counted on when they backed Trump for president — large-scale legislative victories with GOP control of the House, Senate and the White House — has not happened.
Trump has blamed Congress. He said the collapse last month of Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act was the fault of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Senate Republicans. He lashed out several times at McCain for his no vote.
But Republican lawmakers and their staffs say the president’s own performance was lacking. Trump’s shifting views on the legislation and his unwillingness or inability to convince lawmakers — and the public — to rally around a preferred option was as much, if not more, to blame, they say.
A similar dynamic is unfolding on a tax overhaul bill. Republicans in the House and Senate are struggling to draft legislation that can meet the demands of both conservative and centrist Republicans. Trump has said taxes are a top priority, but has made no effort so far to sell the public on a proposal.
On Wednesday, he was supposed to tout his infrastructure plans, but instead, blotted out any discussion of that topic by his defense of the marchers in Charlottesville, who, he said, included many “very fine people.”
On Thursday, the White House said that plans to form a White House advisory council on infrastructure were being shelved.
Presidents and congressional leaders always have some tensions. But the current rift is extreme. To make things harder for Republicans, McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) have not shown they are able to muscle through their priorities as effectively as the Democratic leaders, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, did during the opening period of the Obama administration.
Trump’s 30% approval rating isn’t helping either. It leaves the president without the political capital he needs to move Congress to action.
“When the country’s on board, the Congress moves. That’s the way it works. It’s not a mystery,” said Tyler.
Despite their unhappiness, however, the Republican Congress is unlikely to take the sort of action against Trump that Democrats and outside groups on the left are demanding, such as a resolution to censure the president for his statements.
“There’s an imperative right now in the country to make clear Trump is not speaking for the country when he defended Nazis and supremacists,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former top aide to Democrat Hillary Clinton. “The only way to do that is to have the co-equal branch of government say it.”
But even with Trump’s sagging approval nationwide, the president remains popular in many states and congressional districts that elected Republicans to Congress. Lawmakers remain reluctant to put themselves crosswise with voters many will need in next year’s midterm elections.
Moreover, Republicans in Congress know that for better or worse, their political fates are hitched to Trump’s popularity, which stems in part from his disruptive and racially tinged tone. That hitch was fixed in place last year when GOP lawmakers rallied around Trump as their nominee for president.
Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee and GOP leadership in Congress who opposed Trump for president, said that dynamic isn’t likely to go away.
“As long as Trump remains popular with their primary voters,” he said, “I don’t see things changing.”