The GOP Rebuke of Trump Has Arrived
On a week when the Boys Scouts and the U.S. military gave him some push-back, the collective, audible sigh from congressional Republicans growing increasingly frustrated, and now alarmed, by President Trump became a public admonishment. While Trump will hardly notice, he shouldn’t have asked for it.
As his job approval rating remains stuck at or below 40 percent, many Republicans say their trust that he will remain on their team, back their votes and resist undermining them is gone. Health care reform failed in part because Republicans know Trump could turn at any time and run against any final product. Their hope that an ambitious GOP agenda could become law no matter how chaotic and volatile Trump would be is all they have to cling to, but they barely can. To say it is vastly diminished is charity.
While the challenge of uniting with Trump is more than a year old, as he defied all odds to become their party's nominee in late July of last year, the energy he poured into creating conflict this week seems to have pushed Republicans in Congress over that much-debated line. The turning point was the president’s eagerness to publicly bully his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, despite their exhortations that he stop. Trump has upbraided Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because he thought Sessions was there to protect him. Republican senators rushed to the cameras to defend not only Sessions’ recusal as “the right thing” but his work as attorney general on behalf of Trump’s agenda. They also began to anticipate what more Trump might do to slow down or shut down the investigation, and are now planning their response to a potential firing of or resignation by Sessions, and intend to thwart the possible firing of special counsel Bob Mueller.
Sen. Lindsey Graham not only warned that firing Sessions would bring on “holy hell,” he suggested that firing Mueller could be “the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.” He’s planning to introduce legislation requiring judicial review if a special counsel is fired while investigating the president.
Private concerns about Trump axing Sessions to make a recess appointment of a new attorney general in August, whom he could convince to oust Mueller, quickly became public. On the Senate floor, Ben Sasse said to the president: “If you're thinking about making a recess appointment to replace the attorney general, forget about it.” And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley tweeted that “no way” would his committee consider the nomination of a new attorney general in 2017.
Trump not only continued the abuse, but piled on by suddenly announcing via Twitter a new military policy without informing his colleagues in the co-equal branch of government. Much to the consternation of Defense Secretary James Mattis as well, Trump decided to declare that transgender Americans could no longer serve in the U.S. military, just as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins had joined the cavalry racing to Sessions’ defense -- along with Breitbart News, Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson and other notable voices.
Trump blurted out his new policy, which, though previously under discussion, had not been finalized, and had been understood only to mean a ban on payments for sex reassignment surgeries and medications for transgender men and women in the armed forces, not their service itself.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, back in Washington to vote on health care reform in between brain surgery and upcoming chemotherapy treatments for cancer, said, “There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train and deploy to leave the military — regardless of their gender identity,” and said the announcement was “yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter.”
The Pentagon essentially suggested that, for now, Trump could shove his tweet. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced there would be no modifications made to Pentagon policies without further direction from the president, and that “in the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” which was a direct shot at the disrespectful way in which the president handled the announcement. Mattis was reportedly “appalled.”
Trump can write this all off to his plan to disrupt the GOP establishment in Congress and do things his way, but some have warned his plate-breaking might eventually cut into his base of support. Conservative writer and commentator Charles Krauthammer wrote that not only had Trump revealed “a deeply repellent vindictiveness in the service of a pathological need to display dominance,” but that his assault on Sessions “suggests to those conservatives how cynically expedient was Trump’s adoption of Sessions’s ideas in the first place.”
Meanwhile, the president’s new warrior and communications director starred in his own surreal soap opera his first week on the job, and some Trump allies -- already exasperated by the president trashing Sessions -- are now turning on him. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who Axios reported has been tasked with helping push back against the Russia probe controversy, ripped Anthony Scaramucci in an interview on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, saying he isn’t helpful and is “full of himself.” Ingraham called Scaramucci’s attacks on White House staff “embarrassing to the president.”
Naming Gen. John Kelly his new chief of staff on Friday isn't likely to bring long-sought order to the Trump administration. The president abhors a chain of command and does not work to fix rivalries among factions working for him – instead, he fuels them. Now he will have to find someone to replace Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security, which won't be easy. In addition, reports have surfaced in the media that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is unhappy and could soon leave his position and that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster could do the same. Just six months in, with an administration vastly understaffed and unprepared for a crisis, this would cause more disturbing instability.
As he loses the faith of Republicans on Capitol Hill, Trump has an escalating threat from North Korea to attend to, and a stalled domestic agenda to revive. Embracing chaos, instead of teamwork, will make both much harder.