Trump’s power wanes in closing weeks
President Trump is witnessing his power wane in his final days in office as he divides the GOP over his assault on the electoral process and clashes with Republicans on policy.
In the span of a week, the GOP-controlled Senate overrode Trump’s veto of a defense policy bill, rebuffing the president’s complaints about the legislation in the first and likely only veto override of his presidency.
Trump separately was forced to back down from his criticism of a massive $2.3 trillion funding package.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has since ensured a Trump-fueled push for $2,000 stimulus checks will not succeed, after it united Democrats in support and put Republicans in a difficult position.
Trump’s final weeks on the job have also been charged with controversies that have been increasingly rebuked by members of his own party. Trump’s effort to challenge the results of the election won by President-elect Joe Biden have left him further isolated, causing the president to lash out at McConnell and other Republican leaders for not backing his efforts to overturn the election results in certain states.
In a sign of the president’s dwindling influence on the way out the door, even some of his staunchest Senate allies and 2024 presidential hopefuls, such as Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have stopped short of joining an effort to challenge the Electoral College results.
Trump continues to enjoy strong support in the House, where dozens of Republicans backed his veto of the defense bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act and plan to object to the election results when Biden is certified as the next president Wednesday.
And even though some senators have resisted Trump’s continued efforts to contest the election results, a dozen Republican senators say they plan to challenge the election outcome on Wednesday.
But even in the House, Republicans joined in overriding Trump’s veto of the popular defense bill.
Outgoing presidents often see diminished influence in their final days in office. It’s often more difficult to achieve goals legislatively, and presidents frequently turn to executive power to attend to remaining priorities as a result.
Trump has done so, issuing executive orders and also granting presidential pardons to allies, a tacit acknowledgement his term is at its end even as he continues to contest the election results.
Trump infrequently put his muscle behind legislative efforts throughout his term, instead leaving it to envoys like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to negotiate on his behalf. When the president sought to intervene in the final days — pushing for a repeal of Section 230, an increase in stimulus checks and a formal investigation of voter fraud in the Senate — those demands were largely ignored.
Trump remains the most powerful Republican in the country.
He has mused to people about running for president again in 2024 and has set up a political action committee, Save America, that could be used to fund future political endeavors. Trump is also expected to continue to be vocal through his Twitter account to communicate with his supporters, though his tweets are likely to carry less weight once he leaves office.
“His influence appears to be waning but we shouldn’t conclude from that that somehow he is going to become irrelevant. Far from it,” said William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
“All signs point to him being far and away the most important player [in the GOP] in the coming years,” Howell added.
Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director, said that the number of officials who have backed Trump in challenging Biden’s win is more significant than their votes to override a veto when considering the president’s grip on the party, and ultimately shows that Trump wields heavy influence within the GOP.
“The reality is a big chunk of the party right now is backing an unconstitutional effort by him,” Heye said.
The president in his final weeks in office has largely attempted to bend the party to his will through threats of primary challenges to even some supportive officials.
Trump has called for challenges from the right to Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in 2022, he has implied Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) could face a similar fate, and on Monday he suggested Cotton, who is considered a likely future presidential candidate, may face political consequences for declining to object to the electoral results.
“@SenTomCotton Republicans have pluses & minuses, but one thing is sure, THEY NEVER FORGET!” Trump tweeted.
Thune and Kemp, in particular, have shown no sign of bowing to Trump’s pressure.
Trump has also assailed Republican leaders for allowing the veto override, calling them “weak and tired” in a tweet last week.
Trump’s effort to pressure Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to overturn the election results in a phone call that was leaked over the weekend has created new headaches for Republican lawmakers. The controversy percolated in the days leading up to Tuesday’s Senate runoffs, where Republicans acknowledge their chances of winning have been threatened by the president’s divisive rhetoric.
Former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) have tied their fortunes in Tuesday’s runoff elections closely to Trump, and elected officials eyeing higher office have already started jockeying to curry favor with Trump’s base ahead of the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential race.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who has worked on bipartisan legislation with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and has at times criticized Trump, signed on to the electoral challenge led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Lankford is up for reelection in 2022 in Oklahoma, a state Trump won by 33 percentage points.
But Trump’s attempts to push the boundaries and encourage allies to subvert the election have hit their limits at times. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is also up for reelection in a state Trump won in November, said Monday he was against objections to the electoral count.
The diverging approaches are a preview of what’s to come once Trump leaves office, according to GOP strategists and insiders. Some lawmakers will seek to carry the mantle of Trumpism to position themselves for a presidential run in 2024, while others will bank on Trump’s grip on the party loosening once he leaves office.
“The second he leaves the Oval Office, by definition he’s lost the power,” Heye said. “But if he’s staging rallies and things like that, what level of media interest does that then drive? That’s going to be a big part of it.”
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