The Republican Senate met for lunch Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol. Members filing out of the meeting said, no, Donald Trump did not come up.
Maybe that is because no one can agree on what to do about him.
The Republican Senate – a collective of 54 disparate lawmakers– had its disagreements now and again on everything from budgets to NSA spying, but Trump has introduced a fundamentally new question. Can the party and the Republican Senate majority, specifically, survive if its members are splintered over the party’s nominee.
On Tuesday, lawmakers running for re-election seemed especially reluctant to talk Trump. Some seemed to make an effort not to use his name, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). In his weekly press appearance, McConnell referred to Trump only as “our nominee” while being sure to mention Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama by name.
Other GOP senators were being pinned down by reporters on either Trump, his policy preferences, or his impact on their own races. It made for a series of publicly awkward encounters for senators on the Hill.
“This is a man who says he wants to bring back torture, he says he’d do worse than waterboarding if he could … do you support these policies?” one reporter asked Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who is running for re-election.
“Listen, I didn’t agree with 100 percent of what George W. Bush proposed and I’ll pick those places where I disagree,” Burr said.
He was pushed again on whether he supported bringing back torture.
“You’d have to define what torture is,” Burr said.
A few minutes after the exchange had begun, Burr finally answered.
“I would not support bringing back waterboarding,” the chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee said.
While many GOP lawmakers including Burr have reiterated that they will support the nominee, there is no covering up an awkward party truth: Trump is a mystery to many Republicans. He supports a range of policies–from raising the minimum wage to balking at free trade to once suggesting he liked Obamacare’s mandate–that rank-and-file members of the Republican Party just don’t or can’t publicly support.
“I’m saying I’m gonna back the nominee of the party, but I’ve been out of this race the entire time and will continue to stay out of the race,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-OK).
Lankford says he still has a lot of questions for Trump. When asked what he wanted to hear from him, Lankford simply said “policy positions.”
“Everything,” Lankford said as the elevator doors closed to reporters.
As if Trump’s tone and policy irregularities with Republicans weren’t enough to strike fear into the GOP Senate majority, Trump is an unknown figure to many lawmakers in Washington. Unlike standard bearers of the past who had deep connections with prominent Washington leaders, Trump built his campaign on the premise that he’s an outsider, and the premise is largely true.
Many senators interviewed Tuesday had never met him in person. Few have even talked with him over the telephone. What they know of Trump, they have seen on television, from his days as a go-go developer in the 1980s to his time dabbling in reality television, pro wrestling and beauty pageants to the recent campaign trail mocking of “lyin’ Ted” or “little Marco.”
“I’ve never even met him so it’s sort of an odd situation,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) said he was “not going to get into that” when asked about what kinds of policy changes he’d like to see from Trump that would make him feel more comfortable.
“There is no good answer to that question. It just leads to another one and then I’m trapped,” Isakson said.
“I need laryngitis as quick as I can get it,” Isakson added.
When asked about rumors she would be a vice presidential nominee with Trump, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) walked away at lightning pace before responding that she was busy helping Iowans.
Collins of Maine had more tough talk about what she wanted from Trump.
“He needs to knock off the gratuitous personal insults,” Collins said, adding that Trump wasn’t her first, second or even third choice (although she said eventually could support him.) Specifically, Collins said that Trump needed to watch his tone with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a general election.
“If he were looking to me for advice, which he’s not at this point, I would tell him to stop using the phrase that she’s playing to women’s card because that demeans her experience and her accomplishments,” Collins said. “And although I am not a supporter of Hillary for president, I worked well with her when she was in the Senate.”
After just two days back in Washington from a recess, Mitch McConnell’s once-congenial Senate majority was showing signs of disagreement and fissure. More enthusiastic backers of Donald Trump like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) were irritated Tuesday that the GOP is so half-heartedly embracing the nominee who won fair and square in primary contests.
“I think people want a leader and we got policy wonks and we got all these people who know the details, but people want to see a leader, and I think Trump is providing leadership,” Sessions said. “Washington has lost sight of the interest of people. They don’t know it, but they have.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) expressed dismay that the Bush family had chosen to sit out of the 2016 election.
“I am disappointed in them because staying away is just electing Hillary Clinton, and I don’t think they want to do that,” Hatch said. “I think you’ve got to take a stand on these things. No matter who you get, they’re not perfect and to demand that somebody has to be perfect, is a pretty big demand.”
“They have to get it through their heads that he’s our nominee,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said of colleagues and leaders who have distanced themselves from Trump.
But there are certainly some who won’t come around, revealing that McConnell’s Senate majority and the Republican Party overall probably won’t completely unite this cycle.
“I don’t like what I see. He’s taken the party down a road I don’t want to go and the country down a road I don’t want to go,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who will not back Trump this cycle. “It’s going to be a tough year… I’ve said it a thousand times and I don’t want to do this every day, but I think [Trump’s] gonna get decimated.”
additional reporting by Tierney Sneed