The Memo: GOP laments week of chaos sowed by Trump

The furor over child separations at the southern border has deepened concerns among Republicans over the Trump administration’s often-chaotic and polarizing approach to tackling major issues.

Those worries were given added sharpness this week by confusion regarding President TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ MORE’s position on broader immigration legislation, with the president potentially dooming efforts to pass a bill with a tweet urging the party to move on to other issues.

Concerns are widespread in the GOP that a party battling to retain its congressional majorities in the fall is having a difficult path made even more complicated by the White House’s shifting stances — and by the president’s willingness to ignite political firestorms.

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“It is very difficult. It is policy and governance by chaos, by accident and by reaction,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Steele added that lawmakers and other influential voices in the party “often find themselves back on their heels."

"They have been given one direction to run in, and then the president will slam that door shut and force a redirect," he said.

The most recent example came on Friday morning, when the president tweeted that Republicans “should stop wasting their time on immigration” until after the November midterm elections.

The comment was widely viewed as essentially dooming a GOP push to pass such legislation.

Republican advocates had been trying to breathe life into those efforts after a hard-line bill failed in the House on Thursday. The vote on a compromise measure was postponed until next week as leaders struggled to secure support.

Trump had previously said he would sign either piece of legislation, a view that seemed to be directly contradicted by his Friday tweet. 

Some pushing for congressional action sought to put a brave face on the situation.

“With regards to the tweet, we all know the president has a tendency to change his mind about things like this, so we’re not really too concerned,” one GOP aide insisted to The Hill. 

"The bottom line is that he did make it clear he would sign the compromise bill into law. For those of us who want more than just a vote, but to actually make law that would improve our country's immigration laws, that has been critical,” the aide added.

Still, if any move on immigration is to be made, it will now be against an even more polarized and emotionally fraught backdrop.

The Trump administration’s policy of “zero tolerance” on immigration led to the separation of more than 2,300 children from parents and family members from early May to early June, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s figures.

Reporting from The Associated Press and CBS News indicates that around 500 of those children have since been reunited with their families.

But that alone will not take the sting out of a policy that dominated the news headlines for more than a week and drew condemnation across the country and even internationally, with members of both parties issuing scathing rebukes.

The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics asserted that the child separation practice “amounts to child abuse" while the American Medical Association warned the policy could “create negative health impacts that can last an individual's entire lifespan.”

The president made a rare reversal on Wednesday, signing an executive order to end the separations by allowing minors to be held alongside adults for more protracted periods while the adults await criminal proceedings for illegally crossing the border.

Trump has been at pains to emphasize that he still hews to a hard line on illegal immigration, however. Even as he signed the order, he noted that his policy remained one of zero tolerance. On Friday, he held an event with family members who had been killed by people who were in the United States illegally.

Trump allies argue that such rhetoric is important if he is to keep the loyalty of his base.

But it could cause problems for members of his own party seeking reelection in competitive districts in the fall.

Former RNC communications director Doug Heye drew a comparison to the 2010 midterm elections, when he and his colleagues believed an approval rating of 46 percent or less for then-President Obama was the “magic number” that would indicate the GOP had a chance of flipping the House.

“Trump is well below that,” Heye noted, adding that a self-inflicted political injury like the child separations issue could hurt his poll ratings even further. 

“There is a lot at stake, and a drop in the polls of 2 or 3 points could wipe out an extra dozen seats,” Heye warned.

Another GOP strategist, Dan Judy, also underlined the sheer difficulty of running for reelection while being buffeted by the turbulence coming from the White House.

“There are things that Congress can and should be running on,” Judy said, citing the strong economy in particular.

“It’s very difficult to talk about those things when the White House can’t keep a coherent message," he said. "When Donald Trump says or does something, it sucks all the oxygen out of the room. There is no room to think or talk about anything else.”

Trump’s capacity to overshadow the political landscape is not in doubt. 

Nor, in any essential way, is his popularity with Republican voters — recent polls show him at around 90 percent approval with them, even as his overall approval rating was only 43.7 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling index as of Friday evening.

That leaves GOP candidates in a tricky spot. Only time will tell how many Republican lawmakers will be able to thread the needle.

“You can’t run away from Trump,” said Heye. “But you can run as yourself.”

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