GOP lead­ers push­ing back on Trump

Oba­macare vote isn’t the only new sign of Repub­li­can re­sis­tance.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Noah Bier­man and Brian Ben­nett

WASH­ING­TON — In the year since Don­ald Trump won the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, party lead­ers have been re­luc­tant to chal­lenge a man who has formed a tight bond with con­ser­va­tive vot­ers, even when he up­set party or­tho­dox­ies and norms of pres­i­den­tial be­hav­ior.

But that ret­i­cence is break­ing down. A con­ver­gence of con­tentious is­sues, as well as em­bar­rass­ing in­fight­ing and shake-ups at the White House, have a num­ber of Repub­li­cans sud­denly in open re­sis­tance to Pres­i­dent Trump on a num­ber of fronts.

The most dra­matic mo­ment came in the ear­ly­morn­ing hours Fri­day, when Sen. John McCain, an ail­ing war hero and one­time Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial stan­dard-bearer, joined two other GOP dis­si­dents, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Su­san Collins of Maine, to cast the de­cid­ing vote to kill a scaled-back plan to dis­man­tle tenets of the Af­ford­able Care Act — and with it, per­haps, Trump’s prom­ise to re­peal Oba­macare.

But the signs of re­sis­tance went fur­ther.

Nearly every Repub­li­can in Congress voted with Democrats last week to ap­prove leg­is­la­tion ty­ing the pres­i­dent’s hands on a ma­jor for­eign pol­icy is­sue, mak­ing it harder for him to ease sanc­tions against Rus­sia amid law­mak­ers’ con­cerns about Trump’s friendly pos­ture to­ward Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Late Fri­day, the White House put

out a state­ment say­ing Trump would sign the leg­is­la­tion; his veto would have been eas­ily over­rid­den.

Since Wed­nes­day, some of the most con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans in Congress, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have pushed back at Trump’s sur­prise an­nounce­ment on Twit­ter of a ban on trans­gen­der peo­ple in the mil­i­tary. The crit­ics, in­clud­ing McCain, who is chair­man of the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, and an ar­ray of con­ser­va­tive sen­a­tors, ob­jected both to the sub­stance of the ban — which threat­ened the sta­tus of thou­sands of ac­tive-duty ser­vice mem­bers — and to the way it was un­veiled.

Per­haps the most broad op­po­si­tion came in re­sponse to Trump’s con­tin­ued pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion of his at­tor­ney gen­eral, Jeff Ses­sions. Con­ser­va­tives from Congress who’d served with Ses­sions when he was in the Se­nate de­liv­ered clear mes­sages to Trump in Ses­sions’ de­fense in the me­dia and through­out the coun­try.

Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Carolina said Trump would have “holy hell to pay” if he fired Ses­sions, and Sen. Charles E. Grass­ley of Iowa, chair­man of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, warned that he would refuse to hold hear­ings this year to con­firm a new at­tor­ney gen­eral.

Gra­ham went fur­ther, say­ing that should Trump try to dis­miss Robert S. Mueller III, the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­gat­ing po­ten­tial Trump cam­paign col­lu­sion with Rus­sia and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice, it could spell “the be­gin­ning of the end of the Trump pres­i­dency.”

“What he’s in­ter­ject­ing is turn­ing democ­racy up­side down,” Gra­ham told re­porters, adding that he was con­sid­er­ing leg­is­la­tion to pre­vent Trump from dis­miss­ing Mueller and shut­ting down the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Po­lit­i­cal vet­er­ans and Repub­li­can crit­ics say Trump’s seem­ing in­abil­ity to fo­cus on his pol­icy agenda, amid the dis­trac­tions of in­ves­ti­ga­tions, me­dia bait­ing and staff dys­func­tion, leave him lit­tle lever­age with Congress. Be­yond that, his threats against some Repub­li­cans and shows of dis­loy­alty to­ward al­lies like Ses­sions give law­mak­ers lit­tle faith that Trump will back them if they need po­lit­i­cal cover for tough votes.

“Trump’s ap­proval rat­ing is in the 30s, he uses his bully pul­pit to beat up on staff, and he’s got no pol­icy agenda,” said Rory Cooper, a for­mer Repub­li­can lead­er­ship aide and Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who has been a Trump critic.

“Pres­i­dent Trump’s clos­ing ar­gu­ment on health­care was that his staff and at­tor­ney gen­eral are not trusted,” Cooper added. “It’s clear that mem­bers of Congress have no sup­port or lead­er­ship from the White House.”

Many con­ser­va­tives had been will­ing to put up with Trump’s er­ratic gov­er­nance in the hopes he could at least de­liver on long-stand­ing con­ser­va­tive pri­or­i­ties. But Fri­day’s de­feat on health­care, af­ter Repub­li­cans’ seven years of prom­ises to re­peal Oba­macare, left many de­spair­ing that other prom­ises, es­pe­cially on a tax over­haul, could be im­per­iled.

“The pres­i­dent told ev­ery­one that only he could do the job and he would drain the swamp,” wrote Erick Erick­son, a con­ser­va­tive ra­dio host and blog­ger. “In­stead, he’s dammed up the swamp, put a party boat on it, and has turned his at­ten­tion to Twit­ter.”

Trump, as he of­ten does, blamed Democrats. But he up­braided Repub­li­cans as well on Fri­day, both on Twit­ter and in a Long Is­land speech that was sup­posed to be about crack­ing down on crim­i­nal gangs.

“They should have ap­proved health­care last night, but you can’t have ev­ery­thing,” Trump said in Brent­wood, N.Y. “They’ve been work­ing on that for seven years. Can you be­lieve that? But we’ll get it done. I said from the be­gin­ning, let Oba­macare im­plode and then do it.”

In­di­vid­ual Repub­li­can law­mak­ers have walked a care­ful line with Trump through­out his first six months — sid­ing with him on many is­sues and with­hold­ing crit­i­cism on oth­ers, while dis­agree­ing at times to show their in­de­pen­dence, es­pe­cially in op­po­si­tion to Trump’s pro­posed deep cuts in do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional aid pro­grams.

But the health­care bill proved more com­pli­cated to nav­i­gate. Polls showed that Repub­li­can ef­forts at re­peal were widely un­pop­u­lar, in­clud­ing among some con­ser­va­tives, and promi­nent Repub­li­can gover­nors were strongly op­posed. Yet the party had promised “re­peal and re­place” since 2010.

John Weaver, a for­mer po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant to McCain, said of the se­na­tor’s break with Trump on the health­care bill, af­ter two ear­lier votes in sup­port, “I don’t think he took any joy in it.”

“But,” Weaver said, “I think he wanted to send a clear sig­nal that what’s hap­pen­ing in the White House is not nor­mal and what’s hap­pen­ing in the Congress is not nor­mal.”

GOP crit­ics ac­cuse Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials of com­bin­ing ar­ro­gance with in­ep­ti­tude, es­pe­cially in how they car­ried out threats to wa­ver­ing sen­a­tors such as Murkowski and Ne­vada Sen. Dean Heller. Murkowski sug­gested to re­porters that In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke had threat­ened fed­eral fund­ing to her state, which is heav­ily de­pen­dent on it.

The Murkowski threat was par­tic­u­larly strik­ing be­cause she is chair­woman of the Se­nate En­ergy and Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee, which over­sees Zinke’s depart­ment. Murkowski held fast.

“Who ever heard of a Cab­i­net sec­re­tary threat­en­ing the chair­man of the over­sight com­mit­tee of his depart­ment?” Weaver said. “It’s like ‘Dumb and Dum­ber’ merged with ‘The God­fa­ther’ here.”

Still, Trump has hardly lost his abil­ity to work with his party. Many in Congress con­tinue to fear his abil­ity to stir their most pas­sion­ate par­ti­sans — who con­tinue to back him strongly — and to en­cour­age pri­mary chal­lenges for their seats.

Also, Trump’s al­lies in out­side groups al­ready have shown a willing­ness to spend money on po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing against way­ward Repub­li­cans. A pro-Trump group ran ads against Heller in June, dur­ing an ear­lier stage of the health­care ef­fort, though it pulled them af­ter ob­jec­tions from Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell.

But a Repub­li­can strate­gist with close ties to the White House, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe in­ter­nal dis­cus­sions, said that weapon would be back on the ta­ble for the 2018 con­gres­sional elec­tion cam­paigns.

At the least, Trump’s hold on the GOP’s base could pro­tect him against threats posed by the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions by Mueller and the con­gres­sional com­mit­tees. But Trump is see­ing that it would not be easy to thwart Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion by fir­ing Ses­sions and get­ting his re­place­ment to elim­i­nate Mueller.

Repub­li­can sen­a­tors have their guard up gen­er­ally against pres­i­den­tial re­cess ap­point­ments, which al­low pres­i­dents to fill jobs tem­po­rar­ily with­out Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion. If both par­ties agree, a se­na­tor will stay in town on a ro­tat­ing ba­sis to tech­ni­cally avoid hav­ing the Se­nate in re­cess.

Repub­li­cans did that to pre­vent Pres­i­dent Obama from avoid­ing Se­nate con­fir­ma­tions and fill­ing va­can­cies with re­cess ap­point­ments. But now they have sig­naled they are not will­ing to let Trump un­der­cut their au­thor­ity ei­ther.

Justin Sul­li­van Getty Im­ages

SEN. LIND­SEY GRA­HAM, cen­ter, says that Pres­i­dent Trump will have “holy hell to pay” if he fires Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions and that oust­ing spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III could spell the end of his pres­i­dency.

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