Republicans suffer whiplash from Trump's erratic week

Congressional Republicans are confused and suffering from whiplash after President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE this week flip-flopped on guns and taxes, created a diplomatic row with a European ally, ordered U.S. firms to stop doing business with China, and suggested Jewish voters were disloyal.

He also referred to himself as “the chosen one,” a remark he later said was meant to be sarcastic.

GOP lawmakers have grown accustomed to dodging questions from reporters about Trump’s latest tweet or controversy, but the president’s dizzying performance this week left even some of his staunchest allies scratching their heads.

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Fortunately, they’re in the middle of the long August recess, far away from the Capitol and the Washington press corps. Instead, they’ve been able to keep their heads down, avoid the national media and try their best to steer clear of the latest eyebrow-raising remarks by the president.

“It’s probably confusing” for Republican lawmakers trying to navigate Trump’s remarks, said senior Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeSenate spending talks go off the rails as soon as they begin Social determinants of health — health care isn't just bugs and bacteria Republicans suffer whiplash from Trump's erratic week MORE (Okla.), a rare Republican lawmaker who is willing to speak publicly about Trump. “Most members are home, and that makes a difference. It’s tougher when you’re in Washington.”

That’s not to say that Trump isn’t dominating the discussions lawmakers are having with constituents back home.

“The president himself is the No. 1 issue,” said Cole, a Trump supporter, referring to two recent town halls he held this week in Norman and Chickasha, Okla.

Cole said that while he emphasizes Trump’s accomplishments — rebuilding the military, deregulation, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — his constituents also care about policy issues such as immigration, health care and the spate of mass shootings this month.

Trump’s position on gun reform may not be the most shocking, though it may be the most disorientating. In the wake of massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, the president said Congress needed to pass “strong background checks” legislation.

But after aggressive lobbying by the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre and other gun rights groups, Trump appeared to back off that effort, declaring that the country already has tough background check laws.

Trump did another about-face on a Thursday night phone call, informing Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran Trump, lawmakers consider app that would conduct background checks: report Congress set to ignore Trump's wall request in stopgap measure MORE (D-Conn.) that the White House still wants to get something done on gun violence, including expanding background checks.

"I am skeptical that these efforts are going to bear fruit. I think it's very hard to negotiate with this White House when the president's public positions seem to change by the day," Murphy said Friday morning at a press conference in Hartford, Conn.

“The president's language is always vague and hard to follow, on almost every issue he talks about,” he added. “It's been especially difficult to parse when he's talking about the issue of changing the American gun laws.”

Trump created similar confusion on taxes. Earlier in the week, amid news stories about a possible recession in 2020, White House officials shot down rumors that Trump was eyeing a cut to payroll taxes to help boost the economy. 

Trump then confirmed to reporters that he was, in fact, considering the tax cut, only to contradict himself a day later by saying the idea was off the table and unnecessary because the economy was so strong.

“The administration has lacked focus and clear messaging over the last few weeks. That’s not ideal with the 2020 campaign just around the corner and the increased possibility of an economic slowdown,” said former Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloPelosi: GOP retirements indicate they'll be in the minority, with Democrat in the White House The Hill's Morning Report - Congress returns: What to expect Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback MORE (R-Fla.), who was swept out of office last fall in the anti-Trump blue-wave House elections.

Then, there was the international incident over Greenland. An incensed Trump abruptly postponed a state visit to Denmark and meeting with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen after she called it "absurd" that the American president was trying to purchase Greenland, a semiautonomous Danish territory.

Cole said neither he nor his constituents are upset about Trump exploring the purchase of Greenland, which boasts natural resources and is home to U.S. military assets. But Trump should not have expressed his frustration by retaliating against a key NATO ally, the congressman said.

“They are not going to be giving up Greenland, so don’t be surprised with them saying no,” said Cole, who is a co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Friends of Denmark Caucus along with House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerWords matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump Nadler: Impeachment inquiry a 'made-up term' but it's essentially 'what we are doing' Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight MORE (D-Md.).

 “That was unfortunate. [Denmark] is a really good ally of the U.S. They are not a big country, but they are a really good friend, a strong NATO ally,” he added. “Getting yourself in a spat with them over nothing? Of course they are not going to sell. That’s not in their interest.”

Cole also said he was perplexed by Trump’s bizarre comments that Jews who vote for Democrats show “great disloyalty.” Asked if he could make any sense of the president’s argument, Cole replied, “No, I can’t. It’s been an interesting summer in that regard.” 

“You don’t talk about people who disagree with you politically as disloyal to your country, to your faith, to Israel,” Cole said. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyPence extends olive branch to Cummings after Trump's Baltimore attacks Marijuana industry donations to lawmakers surge in 2019: analysis McCarthy: Trump traveling to Baltimore shows he cares about the city MORE (R-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseOn The Money: Senate panel scraps vote on key spending bill amid standoff | Democrats threaten to vote against defense bill over wall funding | Trump set to meet with aides about reducing capital gains taxes Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban MORE (R-La.) have not commented publicly about Trump’s wild week; their spokesmen also had no comment. Instead, McCarthy on Friday tweeted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, while Scalise campaigned with Republicans in Indiana and Michigan.

One big reason Trump has completely dominated August is because Congress is on a six-week break, with lawmakers scattered across the country in their districts or traveling abroad on family vacations or official trips. When Congress returns on Sept. 9, lawmakers will once again be holding daily press conferences, which could help the GOP get back on message.

One House GOP lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, attempted to see the silver lining in Trump’s chaotic week. The lawmaker argued that Trump has opened the book on a messy debate and deliberations that typically happen behind closed doors at the White House and on Capitol Hill, out of view from the press and American public.

“He is a disrupter, and he keeps everyone on their heels. D.C. isn’t used to that. We have a history of presidents who are much more on message, where everything is prescreened and precooked, no surprises. What you see here is a continuation of an outsider coming to D.C. keeping people on their heels, and that causes concern for many,” the GOP lawmaker said. 

“When the doors are closed, these discussions are very disjointed,” the lawmaker added. “So what you are seeing is a glimpse of the honest conversations that lawmakers have internally with themselves.” 

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMeadows, Cotton introduce bill to prevent district judges from blocking federal policy changes The Hill's Morning Report - Trump ousts Bolton; GOP exhales after win in NC Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader MORE (R-N.C.), the head of the conservative Freedom Caucus and a close Trump ally, suggested that critics have been too quick to fault the president, who he says has been approaching a range of policy issues seriously with an open mind.

“The president has consistently engaged on a number of issues that are politically difficult, always choosing the harder path of not just accepting the status quo. I applaud the president’s efforts to have open rigorous debate,” Meadows told The Hill on Friday. The work that I have witnessed this week by the administration on due process and drug pricing is inclusive and deliberative.”

“Often, some people put far too much emphasis on a single comment than taking the entire debate in context,” he added.

Mike Lillis contributed.