Over the summer, Donald Trump could not keep his mouth shut.
And it was a big problem for Capitol Hill Republicans.
There was the day in July that Trump came to the Hill and attacked sitting Republican senators in what was supposed to be a cordial meet and greet. That same day he gave conservatives in the House heartburn when he pledged to defend “Article 12” of the Constitution (which doesn’t exist).
There was a week in June when Republican senators awkwardly answered a barrage of questions about what they thought of their nominee’s attacks on a federal judge’s Mexican heritage (answer: they weren’t very impressed). And all of that didn’t even begin to address the questions they were getting about the Trump campaign’s disorganization and nearly nonexistent fundraising apparatus.
During his book tour in June, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – a man who rarely offers a ton of political commentary–had no shortage of criticism for Trump, saying that Trump still wasn’t a “credible” candidate and that Trump “doesn’t know a lot about the issues.”
At the Republican convention, those congressional Republicans who did brave it and show up, were peppered with questions about Melania Trump’s plagiarizing and the fervent chants from convention-goers to lock up Hillary Clinton. It was awkward. It was uncomfortable. It was hardly what congressional Republicans wanted to be dealing with as they fought to defend their own majorities in the House and Senate.
Senators were on recess during some of Trump’s most bombastic moments in July and August, when he attacked a Gold Star family that spoke up against him at the Democratic convention, when dozens of Republican national security leaders released a letter vowing to never vote for Trump, when Trump told the New York Times that he had serious doubts about the U.S. commitment to NATO. All of that seemed to point to a long, hard fall when members came back to Washington.
But as lawmakers scramble in September to pass a spending bill and get out of dodge as quickly as they can to return to campaigning, they are suddenly experiencing a far different election than the one they left behind in July.
Gone are the gobs of reporters peppering senators with a long list of Trump-themed questions. On Capitol Hill the press corps is a bit leaner with campaign reporters on the trail. Senators seem more at ease and prepared for questions that once seemed to catch them off guard.
In large part, Republican lawmakers are enjoying watching their candidate finally stick to a script, stay off Twitter, and hold his tongue every once in awhile. Trump still has some of his fire (i.e., claiming that Putin– a notorious authoritarian– is a better leader than President Obama). But Republican lawmakers, themselves, have also become better equipped at handling Trump questions. Many have begun emphatically insisting they didn’t see or hear the latest Trump flub de jour.
“I didn’t watch it,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) said when asked about Trump claiming Putin was superior to Obama.
Some, simply pivot to talking about Hillary Clinton when Trump’s shortcomings come up.
“I look forward to Hillary Clinton continuing to implode in front of the American people in terms of how trustworthy she is,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said when asked what he thought about Trump’s immigration speech he delivered during the summer recess.
During their first lunch back on Capitol Hill last week, Republican senators even gathered off campus at that National Republican Senatorial Committee’s building –which isn’t unheard of when the conference meets to discuss politics, but is far less common. The number of reporters waiting to ask senators questions was far less than usual.
Republicans even seemed hopeful about the Trump campaign after they huddled with vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, a former colleague, for whom they had only the warmest, most emphatic words.
“I don’t think you could have anybody carry themselves more professionally,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said about Pence in the Senate’s meeting.
But Pence was just part of the equation. In many ways, Trump’s improving performance has provided senators with a little bit of breathing room as well. Trump is raising more money than he was before and polls show the presidential race is tightening in several battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio. It has created an environment where Trump feels like, perhaps, less of a liability than he once did.
Polls are even showing that Trump may not be the drag down the ballot that many Republicans once feared he would be in many states. During a meeting Tuesday among House Republicans, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee revealed polling showing as much, according to those in the meeting. Republicans are comfortably outrunning Trump in many places. A recent CNN Poll from Ohio, for example, found Trump up four points, but incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) up 20.
There are, of course, still the traditional friction points. Not everyone, of course, is done worrying about the Trump effect. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) pleaded with reporters Tuesday to “please stop” asking him if he would appear with Trump or Pence on the campaign trail after the meeting with Pence.
“I have nothing else to say. Please stop. Please stop, I don’t have anything else to say,” McCain said crossing the street and walking briskly down the sidewalk.
“I just wanted to ask,” the reporter continued.
“I don’t care what you had to ask. I don’t have anything else to say,” McCain said. “Honestly, my campaign is going fine. I am very happy with the way things are going.”
One rogue comment and Republicans in the U.S. Capitol could once again again be in defense mode about their nominee. Republican leaders know that. It’s why they are going to hurry up as fast as they can to finish up this spending bill and get out of town.
“Look, I’m always in favor of leaving here faster,” Sen. Burr said.