I Repub­li­cans fear US pol­icy dead­lock

Rus­sia con­tro­versy strains ties be­tween the ad­min­is­tra­tion and se­nior party lead­ers

Financial Times USA - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­NEY J OPSON AND SAM FLEM­ING WASH­ING­TON

Repub­li­cans fear that their poli­cies will be de­railed as the Rus­sia tur­moil en­gulf­ing Don­ald Trump forces them to ad­just to a pres­i­dent with di­min­ish­ing po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal.—

Repub­li­cans are deeply wor­ried their pol­icy agenda will be de­railed as the Rus­sia tur­moil en­gulf­ing Don­ald Trump forces them to ad­just to a pres­i­dent with di­min­ish­ing po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal.

A se­nior fig­ure close to the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­scribed par­al­lel uni­verses yes­ter­day, with Mr Trump com­plain­ing he was the vic­tim of a “witch hunt” in one uni­verse, while Repub­li­cans were seek­ing to ad­vance tax re­form, Nafta rene­go­ti­a­tion and a pres­i­den­tial trip to Saudi Ara­bia in an­other.

De­spite law­maker and ad­min­is­tra­tion ef­forts to cre­ate an im­pres­sion of busi­ness as usual, con­cern was grow­ing be­hind the scenes that rolling pres­i­den­tial crises were jeop­ar­dis­ing the chances of sub­stan­tive pol­icy vic­to­ries.

The con­tro­versy is strain­ing ties be­tween the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Repub­li­can lead­ers. Of­fi­cials on Capi­tol Hill warn of two dan­gers: ei­ther a pres­i­dent who is too dis­tracted to bro­ker com­pro­mises, or one who has be­come so toxic law­mak­ers will not fol­low his wishes.

Repub­li­can staffers pointed to Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader Mitch McCon­nell’s re­marks as the best en­cap­su­la­tion of sen­ti­ment in their party. “I think we could do with a lit­tle less drama from the White House on a lot of things,” he said this week. “I think it would be help­ful if the pres­i­dent spent more time on things we’re try­ing to ac­com­plish and less time on other things.”

Lee Hamil­ton, a former Demo­cratic law­maker who wit­nessed the pres­i­den­tial scan­dals of the Nixon and Clin­ton years from Congress, said: “These events seem to kind of over­whelm ev­ery­body, ev­ery­thing in Wash­ing­ton, and stop the progress. The frus­tra­tion level is ris­ing, as the com­ments of [Repub­li­can] lead­ers sug­gest.” He added. “These things also pro­duce con­flicts within. In other words, the White House tends to blame Congress for prob­lems and vice versa. And those things get in the way of pol­icy get­ting en­acted.”

One Repub­li­can staffer said “work­ing with the ad­min­is­tra­tion is not go­ing to look good to a lot of folks”, a se­ri­ous prob­lem given the need for co-oper­a­tion be­tween the White House and Con- gress to pass am­bi­tious leg­is­la­tion. That meant full-blown tax re­form was now even less likely to hap­pen be­fore the 2018 midterm elec­tions, the staffer said, a re­al­i­sa­tion that con­trib­uted to sharp mid­week drops in US share prices, which were not re­versed yes­ter­day.

A long-time Repub­li­can op­er­a­tive said: “I’m not sure how much def­er­ence [Mr Trump’s] ‘lead­er­ship’ is go­ing to get on any­thing that is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from what GOPers are in­clined to sup- port on their own. Not many mem­bers are ready to fol­low him into bat­tle given their grow­ing con­vic­tion that his judg­ment is hor­rific.”

But Paul Ryan, House Speaker, told re­porters: “Peo­ple in the coun­try need to know that we’re busy at work try­ing to solve their prob­lems . . . It’s very im­por­tant that peo­ple know we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

The ways and means com­mit­tee yes­ter­day held a hear­ing to re-en­er­gise its ef­forts to write a tax bill. Kevin Brady, chair­man, said the pre­vi­ous evening: “There will be a time when the pres­i­dent him­self, and the vice-pres­i­dent, will have to be deeply en­gaged in all of this.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sent no­ti­fi­ca­tion to Congress it would be­gin rene­go­ti­at­ing the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment. Steven Mnuchin, Trea­sury sec­re­tary, told law­mak­ers his depart­ment was press­ing on with tax and reg­u­la­tory re­form, and prepa­ra­tions were ac­cel­er­at­ing for Mr Trump’s first for­eign trip, in­clud­ing a stop with US com­pany lead­ers in Riyadh.

Stephen My­row, a former Ge­orge W Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial now at Bea­con Pol­icy Ad­vi­sors, said the White House tur­moil in some ways “makes their lives eas­ier” on Capi­tol Hill.

“Congress has been more se­ri­ous in think­ing through health­care and tax re­form than the White House and it gets the White House out of their hair.”

But a Repub­li­can staffer cau­tioned that the need for the Se­nate to con­firm a new di­rec­tor of the Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion ex­ac­er­bated an­other prob­lem: the ab­sence of Se­nate-con­firmed ap­pointees in cru­cial de­part­ments, in­clud­ing the Trea­sury.

As dif­fi­cult pol­icy de­ci­sions loom, Mr Hamil­ton said the dilemma for law­mak­ers was how close they could af­ford to get to Mr Trump. “They need the White House. He’s got to sign the bill. They can’t do it with­out him,” he said. “At the same time his poll fig­ures are plum­met­ing. And be­lieve you me that’s what the politi­cian looks at, so his clout within the Repub­li­can party is de­clin­ing. Does he be­come so toxic that they sim­ply can’t be associated with him?” Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Shawn Don­nan

‘[Trump’s] party clout is de­clin­ing. Does he be­come so toxic they sim­ply can’t be associated with him?’

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