GOP gets bolder in breaking with Trump
Congressional Republicans are becoming more critical of President Trump amid the shaky rollout of his executive order on immigration and the lack of clear progress on his legislative agenda.
The rising tensions between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue come at a critical time in the Trump presidency, when major decisions on taxes, healthcare and the budget need to be made.
Trump’s criticism of a Republican-appointed federal judge and his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin over the weekend have rubbed some Republicans the wrong way. Those members, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have sought to put some daylight between the policies and priorities of the GOP-led Congress and the new administration.
GOP critics have described the immigration order, which freezes visits from seven predominantly Muslim countries and halts the resettlement of refugees, as “flawed” and “poorly implemented.”
Trump on Saturday lambasted Judge James Robart of the Western District of Washington as a “so-called judge” for issuing a “ridiculous” decision against his order. Robart was appointed by former President George W. Bush.
GOP lawmakers distanced themselves immediately.
McConnell said it’s “best to avoid criticizing judges individually,” and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), an outspoken Trump critic during the presidential campaign, said, “We don’t have any so-called judges, just real judges.”
Trump doubled down on Sunday by tweeting that Robart should be blamed were there a terrorist attack by a foreign visitor from one of the seven countries named in his order.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former member of the Texas Supreme Court, told reporters on Monday that while he did not agree with the court ruling suspending Trump’s travel ban, he didn’t think it was appropriate to target the judge.
“Anytime you lose a decision in court it’s never fun, but I never felt like it ought to be personal because no matter how mistaken, I think judges are basically just trying to do their jobs,” he said, predicting the order would be upheld by a higher court.
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
On certain issues, Trump and GOP lawmakers are on the same page. For example, Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to serve on the Supreme Court was widely praised by GOP lawmakers, but other things have not gone as well, in their view.
Trump has sent mixed signals to Capitol Hill on two of his biggest priorities, the repeal and replacement of ObamaCare and comprehensive tax reform.
He told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly in an interview over the weekend that his ObamaCare replacement plan will not be complete until “sometime next year.”
Last month, he called on Congress to pass the replacement “very quickly or simultaneously” with repeal of Obama’s signature healthcare reforms.
Trump also recently criticized a House Republican tax reform plan for relying heavily on a border adjustment tax that would levy a 20 percent tax on imports.
The president said it was “too complicated,” though White House press secretary Sean Spicer subsequently said a border tax would likely end up being part of the reform package. Spicer suggested it could be tailored to only hit countries that have a trade surplus with the United States, such as Mexico.
Internal party differences on healthcare and tax reform have slowed Trump’s agenda, but so has Democratic obstruction of his Cabinet nominees.
President Obama had 12 Cabinet nominees confirmed at this point in his term and George W. Bush had all 14 confirmed — Trump so far has seen only four of his approved.
Cornyn acknowledged Monday that the slow pace of confirmations has hampered the GOP policy agenda.
“That’s the intent, to deny the president his Cabinet so he can get his administration up and running,” Cornyn said. “I think the country pays a price for it.”
In the limbo of leader-less federal departments and legislative initiatives stuck at the planning stage, Trump’s executive orders and Twitter pronouncements have attracted much of the media’s attention.
Trump stepped into another controversy during the O’Reilly interview when he said he respected Putin and stuck by his statement after the Fox host accused the Russian leader of being a “killer.”
“We’ve got a lot of killers,” Trump said, questioning the U.S. record on human rights. “What, you think our country is so innocent?”
McConnell objected to that comparison during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” calling Putin “a thug” and arguing there isn’t “any equivalency between the way the Russians conduct themselves and the way the United States does.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Trump’s former campaign rival and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, jumped in to push back as well.
“When has a Democratic political activists [sic] been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa? We are not the same as #Putin,” he wrote on Twitter.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who also lost to Trump in last year’s GOP presidential primary, tweeted, “There is no equivalence with the brutal regime of Vladimir Putin.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a leading Senate voice on defense issues who spoke at the Republican National Convention last summer, said Monday that he “wouldn’t have characterized President Putin the way President Trump did over the weekend.”
“Vladimir Putin is KGB, always has been, always will be. He’s an adversary of the United States,” he said during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.
But Cotton also defended Trump’s first two weeks in office, praising his support for using the Congressional Review Act to repeal Obama-era regulations that Republicans say are burdensome on businesses and job growth.
Some Republicans have expressed frustration with Trump’s penchant to stray off a message that they want focused narrowly on tax relief, deregulation and healthcare reform.
But other Republicans, notably Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), have assiduously avoided criticizing the president, despite numerous attempts by the media to lure him into commenting on the latest controversy.
Ryan’s standard response has become, “I don’t typically comment on the tweet of the hour.”
In this respect, Ryan, who was much more outspoken in his criticism of Trump during the campaign, has switched roles with McConnell.
McConnell eschewed criticizing Trump during the campaign but was more willing to break with the president recently on issues such as congressional term limits and Russian sanctions. While Trump has pushed McConnell publicly on eradicating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, the majority leader has repeatedly predicted that the president’s pick will be confirmed.
Trump on Sunday announced that he would put Vice President Pence in charge of what he previously pledged would be a “major investigation” of voter fraud, which he believes accounted for 3 million to 5 million illegal ballots in the presidential election, costing him the popular vote.
Republicans, for the most part, aren’t enthusiastic about a broad federal review of a matter they feel should be left to the states.
McConnell said that while fraud occurs, “there’s no evidence that occurred in such a significant number that it would have changed the presidential election.” He told CNN Sunday that he does not want to spend any federal money on the investigation and that “the states can take a look at this issue.”
Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) echoed McConnell’s view in an interview when he told a local radio station, WTAQ-AM, that investigating possible voter fraud should not be a top priority of the administration.
He said the president should stay focused on regulatory reform, even though he acknowledged it’s not “a very sexy subject.”