The Memo: GOP anger at Trump is building

Republican unease with President Trump is building, and if it snowballs, the White House could suffer significant political damage.

Asked about the mood among conservatives, GOP strategist Rick Tyler replied with a single word: “Fatigue.”

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The pattern of negative headlines continued late Tuesday afternoon, when The New York Times reported that Trump earlier this year asked then-FBI Director James Comey, whom he would later fire, to shut down the bureau’s investigation into the president’s ousted national security adviser, Michael Flynn. 

“I hope you can let this go,” Trump allegedly told Comey. The White House quickly pushed back at The New York Times account.

That report came on the heels of 24 hours of intense controversy over a Washington Post story asserting that Trump had revealed highly classified information to Russian officials.

In politics, the key is to keep your party in line during turbulent times. Attracting criticism from the other side of the aisle is always expected, but taking heat from your own party can be debilitating. 

Among GOP lawmakers, Sen. John McCainJohn McCainCongress must heed Pentagon's request for appropriate funding Overnight Cybersecurity: Flynn refuses to comply with Senate subpoena | Chaffetz postpones hearing with Comey | Small biz cyber bill would cost M | New worm spotted after 'Wanna Cry' US should keep leading the global economy, not close off borders MORE (Ariz.) has taken the lead in criticizing Trump. 

In a Tuesday morning statement, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee called the Russian reports “deeply disturbing.”

McCain, whose imprisonment during the Vietnam War was mocked by Trump during the 2016 Republican primaries, has for some time called for the creation of a select committee to look into allegations of collusion between Trump campaign associates and Moscow. In early April when discussing the ongoing Russia probes, he said, “Every time we turn around, another shoe drops from this centipede.”

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsRussia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement GOP senator slams 'lack of leadership' coming from Trump GOP senators push Trump for DOE research funding MORE (R-Maine) said that if the reports about Trump’s alleged remarks on classified information were true, it would be “very troubling.” Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerClinton administration official knocks 'soap opera' of Trump White House Trump's steps on Iran show cooperation with Congress is possible Senate GOP short on ideas for stabilizing ObamaCare markets MORE (R-Tenn.), who said after the election he was “in the mix” for a role in the Trump administration, described the White House as in a “downward spiral.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzMueller reviewed the Comey memos: report Overnight Cybersecurity: Flynn refuses to comply with Senate subpoena | Chaffetz postpones hearing with Comey | Small biz cyber bill would cost M | New worm spotted after 'Wanna Cry' Chaffetz postpones Oversight hearing with Comey MORE (R-Utah), who has defended Trump against Democratic barbs this year, last week asked the Department of Justice’s inspector general to investigate the president’s firing of Comey.

Trump upset many in the GOP establishment during his presidential run and thrived on various controversies as he won the Republican nomination before later upsetting Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump approval falls 4 points in new survey Voting advocates notch win at Supreme Court House Democrats expand 2018 targets MORE in November. But the intraparty wariness about Trump since inauguration has hampered the White House’s agenda on Capitol Hill and contributed to deeply negative approval ratings.

The allegations about the president and Comey, and about what Trump allegedly told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak fused together to form the latest, deepest crisis in a grim stretch for the administration.

No sooner had Republicans celebrated the House’s passage of legislation aimed at dismantling the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, than Trump ignited a firestorm by firing Comey.

Shifting rationales were offered by the White House for getting rid of the director. Then Trump stoked the atmosphere of crisis still further by suggesting, on Twitter, that there were recordings of his White House conversations with Comey. Meanwhile, speculation about a looming White House shakeup has intensified.

To be sure, there are plenty of prominent Republicans who have remained silent or who are soft-pedaling any criticism of the White House. 

On Monday evening, Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanIs a wave election forming for Democrats? Ryan-allied group launches M ad campaign ahead of healthcare CBO score This week: Congress awaits Comey testimony MORE (R-Wis.) issued a circumspect statement through spokesman Doug Andres. “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount,” Andres wrote in an email. “The Speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellHealthcare saga shaping GOP approach to tax bill Key Senate Republican offers dim outlook for Trump budget Senate votes to confirm US ambassador to China MORE (R-Ky.), who has repeatedly expressed dismay with Trump’s tweeting habits, told Bloomberg,” I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things.” Later on Tuesday, McConnell professed no concern about Trump’s ability to handle classified information.

Tyler, who worked for Trump rival Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzGOP talks of narrowing ‘blue-slip’ rule for judges Abortion poses hurdle for Senate healthcare bill Senator's photo spurs caption contest MORE (R-Texas) during the 2016 primaries, said that while GOP leadership on Capitol Hill had made errors of its own, “I would blame the White House for the incessant, recurring missteps that occupy news cycle after news cycle.”

Shortly before noon on Tuesday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster held a media briefing at the White House, in which he asserted that Trump’s conduct of the meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak was “wholly appropriate.”

McMaster, however, seemed to retreat from the emphatic position he had staked out the previous evening in pushing back against The Washington Post story. 

On Monday evening, he stated, “The story that came out tonight as reported is false.” By Tuesday, McMaster had shifted subtly to say that the “premise” of the story was false. He also would not be drawn out on the central question of whether Trump had revealed classified information.

In two early-morning tweets, Trump himself had said that he had “the absolute right” to share information with Russia, adding that he wanted the Kremlin to “greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”

But the broader picture is one in which the president has, with the exception of the House healthcare reform bill, no major legislative achievements to his name and has been frequently beset by controversies, often of his own making.

The furor over the Russian meeting “wasn’t the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson, a longtime Trump critic. “But every day has something like this. There is this accretion of trouble every single day. One scandal after another, one mistake after another, one train wreck after another.”

A Democrat who worked in damage control in former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonMonica Lewinsky: Fox News's 'dream was my nightmare' Feehery: Trump’s first budget test Five things to watch for in the Trump budget MORE’s administration, when the 42nd president was struggling with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, cautioned that such situations could quickly go from bad to worse for the occupant of the Oval Office.

“These members are like a herd of cattle on the plains, where one bolt of lightning will send them into a stampede,” the source wrote in an email. “In [the] Clinton era, [I] spent a lot of time with members, quietly showing Clinton maintained strong job approval ratings even when people were personally upset with the conduct. Trump does not have a job approval safety net.”

The situation is changing almost by the hour, with some Republicans shifting from their earlier belief that GOP lawmakers would stick with Trump, if only because they don’t have a great alternative.

Strategist Mark McKinnon, who worked for former President George W. Bush, had been relatively sanguine about Trump's chances of keeping the GOP in line early on Tuesday. After the latest Comey revelations, however, McKinnon changed tack. "Given today’s developments, I suspect that a lot of GOP members are going to develop a sudden allergy to the White House," he said.

Others, like Wilson, have been predicting doom for some time.

“It is going to be politically unendurable for a lot of these guys,” he said. 

“Once we end up at that point, you are going to have a lot more willing to publicly distance themselves — but also doing things like not jump into the legislative agenda. They are not going to be part of defending something that is indefensible.”

 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpYates told White House counsel about Flynn ‘so you can act’ Trump trip gives GOP a breather Trump may tap Lewandowski, Bossie as crisis managers: report MORE’s presidency. Mike Lillis contributed.