The Memo: GOP fears Trump turmoil during tax push

Republicans on Capitol Hill fear that President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE will knock them off-course as they make a furious year-end push for their legislative agenda.

There is precious little margin for error as the GOP battles to pass tax reform and come to an agreement on government spending — and Trump’s taste for controversy doesn’t help, they say.

“While he will push for tax reform, Trump is never going to change and could end up distracting everyone over unrelated matters that feed the base,” said one Republican strategist with close ties to the White House.


Less than an hour after the strategist made that point on Monday afternoon, Trump created just such a distraction.


At a White House ceremony honoring Navajo Code Talkers, he jabbed at Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE (D-Mass.), referring to her as Pocahontas.

Trump’s use of the term, considered by some to be a racial slur, sparked a firestorm on social media. 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced a number of questions on the topic at a media briefing. She defended Trump, denied “Pocahontas” was a slur and tried to keep the focus on Warren, a potential presidential candidate in 2020.

The broader issue, though, is one in which delicate negotiations over complicated issues can be cast into confusion at a moment’s notice by the president.

Senate Republican lawmakers will be looking for reassurance when Trump meets with them on Tuesday at their weekly policy luncheon.

The GOP badly needs a win on tax reform after efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, ran aground earlier this year. 

Republican lawmakers are also eager to avoid a government shutdown, which could occur if a new spending deal is not reached by Dec. 8.

But divisions between Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans complicate work on both fronts.

Trump recently signaled support for Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, breaking with GOP lawmakers who have distanced themselves from Moore over allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. 

Neither the Republican National Committee nor the party’s Senate campaign arm, the National Republican Senate Committee, is spending money to help Moore win the special election on Dec. 12. 

Trump’s backing of Moore also adds another point of friction to his strained relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Graham: Senate trial 'must expose the whistleblower' Graham says Schiff should be a witness in Trump impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.), who has tried to get Moore out of the race.

The erosion of trust between Trump and the GOP could also be a factor in the government funding talks.

Republican lawmakers have not forgotten the president’s impromptu deal with Democrats in September, when he overruled GOP leaders and agreed to a stopgap measure favored by Democratic leaders Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Schumer blocks drug pricing measure during Senate fight, seeking larger action MORE (N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Speaker Pelosi, it's time to throw American innovators a lifeline Why Americans must tune in to the Trump impeachment hearings MORE (Calif.) — or “Chuck and Nancy” as Trump has sometimes called them.

Some in the GOP also smarted when, during one of the abortive attempts to repeal ObamaCare, Trump first held a Rose Garden event to celebrate the passage of House legislation, only to later disparage the same bill as “mean.”

“What Republicans would like to see now is what they have wanted to see all year — a focus on moving a legislative agenda,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee and frequent Trump critic. 

“We have seen some fits and starts with that, but it hasn’t been a long-term or consistent priority for the president,” Heye added. “That takes focus and discipline, and we haven’t seen that.”

Trump weighed in on the tax bill — in comparatively restrained fashion — earlier Monday. On Twitter, he enthused that it was “coming along very well [with] great support” but said the proposal would nevertheless require “just a few changes.” 

Still, there is guarded optimism in Republican ranks that tax reform could win passage before the end of the year. 

Few things unite the GOP so emphatically as a desire for lower taxes. Lawmakers are keenly aware of the political imperative to deliver some tangible benefits to the voters who elected them before next year’s midterm election season begins.

“There is growing momentum for this and I’m confident that we’re going to get this done soon,” Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) told reporters at the White House on Monday. 

Toomey was among a group of lawmakers who met with Trump and Vice President Pence moments before to discuss the tax bill.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske Trump holds more Medal of Freedom ceremonies than predecessors but awards fewer medals Trump to award Medal of Freedom to former Attorney General Edwin Meese MORE (R-Utah) was upbeat as well, insisting that Republicans in the upper chamber would have the votes to pass tax legislation.

“We intend to get to 50,” Hatch said.

Some Republicans defend the way Trump has pushed the tax-reform package to date.

“On the tax stuff, he is doing a pretty good job,” said John Feehery, a former aide to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill who is also a columnist for The Hill. “He can talk with great authority about how this will help the business sector create jobs.”

Feehery said he is “very optimistic” that tax reform would pass, even if it would involve “a delicate dance” between Trump and his party colleagues.

Others sounded a more cautious note.

“They need this to be all hands on deck — big hands or small hands,” Heye said. “It is a real challenge for the president to stay out of his own way.” 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.