Under Trump, Hill GOPers Struggle To Stay Focused On Their Own Goals

Cliff Owen/FR170079 AP

There is mounting frustration on Capitol Hill with how President Donald Trump has conducted himself in his first week and a half in office.

Trump’s decision last week to roll out an executive order that restricted travel from seven-majority Muslim countries and temporarily halted the U.S. refugee program, reportedly without consulting his Capitol Hill, Justice Department or Department of Homeland Security, bruised egos and left congressional Republicans stunned. Some worried that this could be their new normal.

“I got the impression that the people who were briefing us know there needs to be more caution, I’m not sure the President knows that,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who was coming out of a briefing Tuesday with DHS Secretary Gen. John Kelly.

Hill GOPers already identified an aggressive agenda for the year ahead, including repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and overhauling the U.S. tax code. But those plans keep getting overshadowed by a White House and President that shoots from the hip and goes ahead with their own agenda without even consulting the first branch of government.

Every new relationship has its growing pains, but for Republicans who’ve spent the last eight years defining their agenda in opposition to former President Barack Obama, winning the White House wasn’t supposed to be like this at all.

Members have publicly downplayed the President’s early foibles at CIA headquarters or his insinuation he may bring back torture as little more than Trump being Trump. But those actions have cost members precious time and raised the prospect that Republicans might have to go it alone in on key agenda items.

Some are dismissing Trump’s early missteps as little more than growing pains.

“I think most people feel like it could have been rolled out in a better way. The administration’s learning, we’re all learning how everybody works,” Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) said of the immigration order.

Others say Trump really is beginning to get in their way.

At Congressional Republicans’ retreat last week in Philadelphia, members who had gathered to hammer out a plan to repeal and replace the ACA spent much of the first day answering questions about Trump’s false statement that millions of undocumented immigrants cost him the popular vote in the 2016 election. In his brief remarks to the GOP confab, Trump brought it up again and then left the meeting without taking any questions from members.

“It derails the message. The voter fraud comment, it was very light, it was kind of touching on the whole thing,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL). “Again, I think any time you get away from our message, which is jobs, manufacturing, economy, defense, rebuilding the military, I think you derail the message.”

At the very time when they were trying to settle on a policy agenda for the year, senator after senator was forced to address a draft executive order showing Trump was open to re-examining the merits of torture as a method to gather intelligence, which the Senate voted to halt years ago.

“We view that to be a matter of settled law,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said at the retreat as he faced an onslaught of questions.

On the foreign policy front, Senate Republicans have been forced to answer for Trump’s too-cozy-for-comfort relationship with Russia, combative phone calls with U.S. allies like Australia and tendency to shun traditional Republican foreign policy norms.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) actually spent time calling the Australian ambassador on Thursday.

“Australia is one of America’s oldest friends and staunchest allies. We are united by ties of family and friendship, mutual interests and common values, and shared sacrifice in wartime,” McCain said in a statement after the call.

It seems that day after day, more news breaks that forces Republican lawmakers to answer for Trump and that takes them away from their two main policy goals. For his part, Trump has continuously sent mixed messages via interviews and statements about what he wants the Congress to do on health care and tax reform. At one point, Trump hinted he wanted health insurance for all. At another turn, he instructed lawmakers to keep children on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26, a requirement Republicans have said they will include in any repeal and replace plan.

Trump sends out directives, but there is little indication at this point that the President is truly engaged or interested in laying out a framework for either replacing Obamacare or for tax reform. Instead, he’s out talking about everything else.

“Inside a moment like this, I actually think there is quite a bit of opportunity,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE). “The American people voted for this President because they wanted to vote for disruption. Some pieces of that might be great. Some pieces of that are going to be a little bit scary and time to buckle up, and it’s going to take a couple of months for this institution to figure out how to process the broad range of stuff that he talks about coming out of that fire hydrant.”

There may even be some Republican members on the Hill who are relieved that Trump is staying out of health care policy planning, but things get really thorny where Trump makes foreign policy decision or issues executive orders without so much as consulting members. Republicans in Washington spent the last eight years railing against Obama’s tendency to circumvent Congress, but they want to make sure Trump doesn’t do the same to them.

Despite Trump having cut Congress out of an executive order affecting visas and immigration, and even though he’s spent more time talking about crowd size at his inauguration than health care policy, several members who spoke to TPM doubled down on the notion that he was completely aligned with their vision for how to govern.

“Our priorities are in complete alignment: border security, cyber security, combatting Islamic terror,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). “Our priorities are in complete alignment with the administration so it’s pretty simple.”