Trump tightens grip on GOP

Trump tightens grip on GOP
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE has solidified his grip on the Republican Party, forcing GOP lawmakers to think twice about challenging him in public for fear that it might come back to hurt them politically.

Rep. Mark SanfordMarshall (Mark) Clement SanfordMark Sanford debates cardboard cutout of Trump to protest South Carolina canceling its GOP primary Joe Walsh: GOP is a 'cult' and Trump a 'would-be dictator' RNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' MORE's (R-S.C.) loss in Tuesday’s primary is the latest reminder to Republicans of the president's popularity with the GOP base and his ability to inflict revenge when angered.

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Trump ripped Sanford and offered support to his GOP rival on Twitter just hours before Sanford’s primary loss, as voters continued to go to the polls.

The message to Republicans was unmistakable: Trump will get involved in your primary if you cross him.

On Wednesday, some predicted Republicans will be even more afraid to go after Trump after what happened to Sanford.

“Most already are,” added Rep. Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloHead of Pennsylvania GOP resigns over alleged explicit texts Lobbying world Overnight Energy: Park Service closing Joshua Tree after shutdown damage | Dems deliver trash from parks to White House | Dems offer bills to block offshore drilling | Oil lobby worries about Trump trade fight MORE (R-Pa.), an outspoken Trump critic who is retiring from Congress.

One Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss feelings about Trump within the conference candidly said colleagues know that if they go after the president, they are likely to hear about it publicly.

“He will not take a punch, he responds every time,” the senator said, adding: “I will not make comments about the president.”

The fear of taking Trump on was evident when the president visited the Senate GOP lunch last month amid deep angst over the tariffs being imposed in imports of steel and aluminum.

Despite widespread anger over those tariffs, not a single GOP senator raised the issue with Trump during the meeting.

GOP lawmakers say there is a strong reluctance to clash with the president because he could pay them back by thwarting their legislative priorities or drumming up opposition among Republican base voters.

Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsHillicon Valley: Lawmakers ramp up Silicon Valley antitrust probe | Treasury sanctions North Korean cyber groups | Thiel to host Kobach fundraiser Ann Coulter, Peter Thiel slated to host fundraiser for Kobach's Senate bid: report Rep. Roger Marshall launches Kansas Senate bid MORE (R-Kan.), chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, vehemently disagrees with Trump’s use of tariffs, but he said last week that he had concerns about backing a measure sponsored by Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) to curtail Trump’s use of tariffs for fear it would imperil the farm bill.

“I don't want to rile the waters ... I don't think the president will be very pleased,” he told reporters last week.

Some Republicans, such as Sanford, have repeatedly criticized Trump. But most of them are retiring.

One such lawmaker, Corker, drew attention on Wednesday by comparing his colleagues to members of a cult.

“It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” Corker said Wednesday, a day after he mocked fellow Republicans for being afraid of poking the president. “And it’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of — purportedly — of the same party.”

Sanford wasn’t the first Republican to suffer politically after a battle with Trump.

Rep. Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyPelosi: GOP retirements indicate they'll be in the minority, with Democrat in the White House The Hill's 12:30 Report: House panel approves impeachment powers Pressure rises on Cheney to make decision MORE (R-Ala.) was forced into a runoff earlier this month after disavowing Trump in the 2016 presidential contest.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake donates to Democratic sheriff being challenged by Arpaio in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says US-China trade talks to resume, hails potential trade with Japan, UK Joe Arpaio to run for Maricopa County sheriff in 2020  MORE (R-Ariz.) is one of the most aggressive GOP Trump critics. He is not running for reelection after polls suggested he would not win.

Costello said criticizing Trump opens you up to attacks in a primary.

“In a primary, if you’re going to provide any level of questioning or critique of the president in any way, you are obviously opening yourself up to have someone say that you’re ‘not supporting the president,’ ” Costello told The Hill. “You’re going to get some grief.”

Trump allies say that is a strength of the president’s — and something GOP lawmakers and other Republican office holders should keep in mind.

"President Trump is one of … the most popular presidents with Republicans in history,” said Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsNate McMurray launches second challenge against GOP Rep. Chris Collins Michael Caputo eyes congressional bid House ethics panel renews probes into three GOP lawmakers MORE (R-N.Y.), a Trump ally.

“If you’re not on the same page as the president, and 85-90 percent of your base is, you can see where that can cause a problem,” Collins said.

There have been questions about whether Trump will see a primary challenge in 2020, though his power in primaries could make Republicans less likely to give air to a GOP challenger.

There’s also a link to the probe by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal MORE.

GOP leaders have been firm in arguing that Mueller should be allowed to continue his probe even as the White House and its allies have increased their attacks on the investigation.

As Trump’s grip on his party tightens, it’s possible that could change.

A new Morning Consult-Politico poll on Wednesday showed 36 percent of respondents now have a negative impression of Mueller’s investigation, a 13-point jump from last summer.

Other Republicans said the main takeaway from Tuesday’s primary results is that if lawmakers want Trump’s support, they need to back his agenda.

“I don’t know that it sends a message you shouldn’t cross [Trump]. It sends a message that he’s certainly interested in those who want to help support his agenda,” said Rep. Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsPopulation shifts set up huge House battleground The 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today MORE (R-Texas).

But Flake said Tuesday’s primary results underscored the president’s power.

“This is Trump’s party,” he said. “It was reiterated last night. If you want to win a Republican primary, you can’t deviate much from the script, the president’s script. You can’t criticize policies or behavior.”

Asked later if his colleagues are scared of facing the president’s wrath, Flake said, “yes.”

Jordain Carney contributed.