GOP downplays Trump’s week of drama
President Donald Trump may be facing one of the toughest weeks of his presidency, but on Capitol Hill, the avalanche of news also forced Republicans into a familiar posture — dodging, weaving and downplaying — as the party braces for the midterm elections and hopes the president’s drama won’t dog them at the polls.
For Republicans, Michael Cohen’s plea and the guilty verdicts brought against Paul Manafort were just the latest data point in what has been a 19-month marathon of tweetstorms, policy lurches and alleged misdeeds against Trump associates. While Democrats used the news to call for a delay in the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Republicans largely siloed the legal news and argued it had little to do with the commander in chief or the job they had ahead.
“I’m sorry I don’t see any deeper meaning in this,” Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, told reporters Wednesday when asked about the Cohen and Manafort news. “Certainly it’s a distraction. That’s a factual statement.”
It’s a position familiar in the halls of the Capitol, where beyond an occasional voicing of “concern,” the vast majority of elected Republicans rarely enter the waters that the president, often of his own accord (and more often still, through his Twitter account) has churned into a rip current. The reasons cited publicly range from lack of information, interest or belief that the elected official who leads their party really means what he says.
Privately, aides and lawmakers tell CNN the calculation centers more on two issues: Republican voters and that 19 months into Trump’s time in office, it has become brutally clear that messages of opposition to him are far more effective when made in private settings.
Another factor, according to one senior GOP aide, is the perceived reality of the Trump moment.
“Everyone will move on to the next huge, cataclysmic thing in like three hours,” the aide said, somewhat sarcastically. “Why burn down the relationship when the president is going to dramatically shift the topic in a matter of hours?”
It was a position on display in spades in an August week that senators would traditionally be in their home states campaigning and meeting with constituents. Stuck in the Capitol, mobbed by reporters, the answers started to blend together in a kind of rhythm of nothingness as each day’s Trump saga unfolded.
Did Republican senators think Trump should pardon Paul Manafort? (He has the authority, but is it a good idea?) What does Michael Cohen’s guilty plea implicating the president mean for his presidency? (Would you believe Michael Cohen?) Will they call on Michael Cohen to testify before congressional committees? (Maybe, but probably not.) What is the fate of Attorney General Jeff Sessions? (TBD.)
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a key Republican on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, said that “after the election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general. “
Some Republicans tried to minimize or avoid scrums on each incremental development entirely. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who refused to endorse Trump during the GOP convention in 2016 but has since tried to be friendly with him, repeatedly declined opportunities to talk.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — a Kentucky Republican who does not regularly engage reporters in the hallways of the Capitol — was stone-faced about the president’s lawyer and former campaign chairman Wednesday and Thursday, declining to answer a question after question from the reporters he came across on his way from his office to the floor.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office released a statement saying that “we are aware of Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea to these serious charges. We will need more information than is currently available at this point.”
Democrats, for their part, haven’t held back in their criticisms of the Republican strategy.
“The mantra of the Republican majority in the 115th Congress is put your head in the sand,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said Thursday. “The symbol of the Republican Party — the elephant — is being replaced with the ostrich, the animal that just puts its head in the sand whenever trouble occurs.”
But the cycle — Republicans downplaying Trump’s comments or his former associates’ misdeeds — has been months in the making, a learned habit that has become the reality of working in Congress with an R beside your name. The few lawmakers who are willing to speak up or decry the compounding drama surrounding Trump tend to be the same group of voices. An occasional moderate Republican or, far more often, a member who is retiring.
“It’s just not a good week. There’s no way to spin it any other way. I think for us to pass it off as Republicans as no big deal, that’s just not right. This is a big deal,” said retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. “We ought to treat it seriously.”
Behind the scenes, some Republicans argue there isn’t much more unfolding — no panicked strategy sessions or plan B for how to handle the next incoming of news swirling.
“We just had a lunch and you go around the table, everybody speaks — nobody spoke about it. There were about 40 Republican there. The closest someone came was someone stood up and said, ‘I’m getting a lot of questions about should we move forward with Kavanaugh given we had the Cohen and Manafort decisions,’ and that was it,” one Republican senator said. ” So that is an example of the lack of tension or time being put (into) it.”
The frustration of Republican members is that they are pushing forward with the appropriations process — which is working better than it has in years — they are advancing judicial nominees — including securing the confirmation of the unprecedented 25th and 26th circuit judges of Trump’s time in office — and instead of talking about that, touting that, messaging that? They are being asked questions about Trump’s latest, often self-imposed, drama.
“As we are working through the appropriations process and we are trying to get this done in a timely fashion, there has been a constant focus on whatever the bright and shiny object of the day is. In this particular case, it’s been outside court cases,” said Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota. “That leaves less time to be able to share with the rest of the country the things that we are actually accomplishing in the Senate on a bipartisan basis.”
One Republican Senate aide echoed that while members publicly remain cool-headed, evasive or committed to downplaying the events of the last week, behind the scenes the escalating legal drama has taken its toll.
“While members may be hesitant to theorize about the president’s legal troubles to the media, there’s growing concern among them that the President and his team aren’t taking any of this seriously, as if it’s just another subplot brewing in a bad reality TV show,” the aide said. “There’s also frustration from members that they’re being forced to spend time answering questions about the president’s scandals and ill-advised tweets instead of the important work they’re doing a few months before major elections.”
Senate Republicans, at least at this moment, see a limited chance of losing their majority ahead of the midterm elections. While their majority is narrow, it’s Democrats who face the re-election headwinds in the form of defending 24 seats to the GOP’s nine — and 10 of those Democratic incumbents hail from states Trump won handily in 2016. Beyond that, it’s not as if the party itself is fleeing the president, who holds sky-high GOP approval numbers.
“There’s no electoral trigger for our folks to split away,” one senator told CNN. “In fact,” the senator added with a chuckle, “for the vast majority of our conference, we go home and hear how we aren’t sufficiently close enough to the president.”
Besides, aides say repeatedly, whether it’s a Twitter fight, or a firing, or an insensitive remark, or repeated stretches of the truth, or mini-diplomatic crises, it won’t last long. The latest drama — if past scandal-laden weeks are any indication– will pass and be replaced by new drama.
Or, as one senator put this week’s version of the above in textbook bland fashion: “It’s a source of concern, but I think we’re just going to have to watch and see where it goes.”