Republican friendships shatter over Trump

A few months ago, Matt Schlapp, the former White House political director under President George W. Bush, walked into a cocktail party and tried to join a conversation with Republican consultants he has known for years. 

“The conversation quickly ended,” Schlapp, the chairman of the nation’s oldest conservative grassroots organization, told The Hill in a recent interview. “Everyone looked down at their expensive loafers.” 

“I hadn’t had that happen to me in a professional setting before,” he added. “It’s one of those moments when you wonder, ‘Hey, do I have something on my face?’” 

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Schlapp’s decision to support Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSessions says grants to be withheld from sanctuary cities German government denies receiving NATO invoice from Trump Breitbart denied congressional press passes: report MORE for president has cost him friends in Washington’s elite Republican circles. Invitations he would normally receive no longer arrive. The vibe he says he’s getting is: “You’re out of the club.” 

He’s hardly alone. Old allies in Washington and across the establishment Northeast are no longer on speaking terms because one backs Trump and the other loathes the nominee. Divisions have run so deep in some cases that they could take years to heal. 

The fallout 

Mike DuHaime has witnessed what Schlapp is living through on a larger scale. 

DuHaime is the top political adviser to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In late February, Christie became one of the first Republican leaders to endorse Trump. 

The fallout was brutal. 

Christie got publicly trashed by the GOP establishment. His endorsement was called “disgusting” by former Bush aide Tony Fratto. Former Mitt Romney adviser Ryan Williams accused Christie of “kissing Donald Trump’s boots.” 

The governor was excoriated in a public letter by his former finance co-chair, Meg Whitman, who now supports Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonCheney: Russian election interference could be ‘act of war’ Conservatism's worst enemy? The Freedom Caucus. The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE, and ridiculed on Twitter for alleged indignities including fetching Trump’s McDonald’s order. (Christie disputes the McDonald’s story.) 

“There aren’t a lot of people with the courage to go up to his face,” DuHaime said of the attacks on Christie. “A lot of the vitriol has come from people who are extraordinarily brave on Twitter.” 

Outside the professional political class, however, Christie gets treated warmly, according to DuHaime.

That contrast between Beltway iciness and a warm reception in "real America" is an experience commonly described by Trump-backers in the party. 

Two worlds 

Sen. David Perdue, among the most full-throated Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, says the positive reactions he gets in his home state of Georgia are unrecognizable from what he hears inside the Beltway. 

Perdue hasn’t lost any Washington friendships over Trump — mainly because he was never close to many of the Trump rejecters in the first place.  

He believes many veteran Republicans in D.C. can’t relate to political outsiders, “therefore, anybody who’s in the Republican caucus here that’s pulling for Trump is a little bit seen as askew," Perdue said. "And the reason is, he’s not of Washington."

“Well, you know what? Neither am I,” added Perdue, who like Trump, came to politics late in life after running large companies and is now the only Fortune 500 CEO in Congress.  

Another Trump loyalist to feel that divide is Jeffrey Lord, a veteran of the Reagan administration and a Trump campaign surrogate on CNN. 

Home in Pennsylvania, people who’ve seen Lord on TV stop him in the grocery store and say nice things about Trump. 

When Lord attended the glitzy White House Correspondents’ Dinner, however, he got a different reception. 

A Republican from a prominent think tank — Lord won’t say who — attacked Lord, telling him he’d “betrayed conservatism and Ronald Reagan” by supporting Trump. 

Lord said the title of a Hollywood tell-all book, "You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again," describes the sensation he now feels when he visits the town he once called home.   

Washington's political culture 

On May 3, Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary under Bush from 2001 to 2003, tweeted: “There's a lot about Donald Trump that I don't like, but I'll vote for Trump over Hillary any day.” 

A former colleague of Fleischer’s, Fratto, the Bush aide who criticized Christie’s support, replied in a tweet: “Then we don’t have anything to say to each other.” 

Fratto told The New York Times that Fleischer’s betrayal was “unforgivable.” 

“You were the White House spokesperson when Trump said the president lied the country into the death and maiming of people unnecessarily,” he told the Times of Fleischer. “How can Ari be OK with that?” 

Asked about Fratto’s reaction, Fleischer told The Hill, “I’ll always have something to say to Tony, whether Tony wants to say anything to me or not.” 

Fleischer believes these deeply personal reactions are peculiar to Washington. Now he lives in New York and works in sports consulting, where he doesn’t lose friends over political differences. 

“One of the most wonderful things about being outside of Washington is people differ on politics but have a lot more important and other things to talk about,” Fleischer said. 

“I just think it’s important,” he added, “not to let a political difference, even over Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, rise to the level of personal rancor. 

“Isn’t that what’s wrong with the system?”  

Coping mechanisms 

So open is the contempt for Trump within certain D.C. Republican circles that some have calculated that it's better for their careers if they keep their support for Trump a secret. 

A senior House Republican staffer who works for a committee chairman doesn’t tell his colleagues that he likes Trump or that he has informally advised the campaign.

“Basically nobody knows what I’ve done,” said the staffer, who asked for anonymity for fear of the impact his views could have on his career. “It's not something I talk about openly at work, because there are a lot of strong feelings, still, among the staff. People talk openly against the guy.” 

He worries it might harm his reputation if colleagues discover he's a major fan of Trump. 

“I always felt that I would be viewed in a different light,” he said. “I think they would have pegged me as being ... all the things the media has said about Trump. That he was a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobe.” 

Over drinks with colleagues after hours, however, the staffer is finding a growing number of colleagues who also secretly like Trump. 

“It’s kind of like you’re doing this little weird sort of dance around it,” he said. “You haven’t admitted to them that you’re supporting the guy and they haven’t admitted to you that they really like the guy. 

“And you get to the point where you’ll say, ‘I kind of like what he says about this.’ And they’ll say, ‘Well I kind of like that too!’”  

Lawmakers immune 

Perhaps the only Beltway politicos who aren't losing friendships over Trump are lawmakers themselves. 

None of the Republican congressmen interviewed for this article said their support for Trump had ruined friendships on Capitol Hill.

“I have good friends of mine in Congress that have come out publicly and said no [to Trump], and our discussions are quite frank,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the powerful House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 

“And I keep telling them, just think about the Supreme Court when you go in there and you don’t pull that lever for Trump.” 

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) has similar experiences. 

“I hear some colleagues saying, ‘Well he’s not a true conservative ... he insults people,'” he said. Babin responds that Trump makes mistakes because he’s not a politician, “and you don’t have to be a politician to recognize the problems this country faces.” 

One reason these pro-Trump lawmakers don’t get attacked to their faces might be that they’re imposing characters themselves. 

“I’m known to be a little bit of a maverick,” said Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), an early Trump backer. 

Marino's response to skeptical colleagues: “Well, how’s it been going the last 30 years?”  

Putting the party back together 

Schlapp attributes a lot of the anger to wounded pride within a consultant class that failed to grasp the Trump phenomenon. 

“If you are someone who spent your whole professional life making predictions, selling your reputation for understanding politics,” he said, “I think this gets to the core of their pride and ego.” 

Schlapp, Bush’s former aide, said the message voters are sending — that Washington is broken and that the people running Washington are not listening — “gets to be a very personal message if you’re living in those zip codes.” 

He hopes when this election is over, whether Trump wins or loses, establishment Republicans can reconcile with Trump supporters. 

In the meantime, Schlapp and his wife face an awkward stretch until Election Day. 

“I can’t tell you the number of nights that we’ve looked at each other and kind of felt a bit lonely,” he said, laughing. 

“It’s personal. It’s painful. It’s people you grew up with,” he added. “In politics, you make these really great, deep friendships because you work long hours and it’s about issues that are important. 

“When those relationships break, it’s really heartbreaking."

“But it also motivates you to say: There’s a lot on the line, and a lot of emotion involved,” he added. “And screw it, you’ve gotta do what’s right.”