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Can Congressional Republicans and Trump Stay Friends?

Trump and the Hill GOP make nice, but who knows how long it will last

President-elect Donald Trump, escorted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., takes a few questions from the press at the U.S. Capitol in early November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President-elect Donald Trump, escorted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., takes a few questions from the press at the U.S. Capitol in early November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans about to unanimously nominate Speaker Paul D. Ryan for another term as their standard-bearer recently got a not-so-subtle signal of who’d really united their party:

Red “Make America Great Again” hats were waiting on every seat.

The prominence of President-elect Donald Trump’s much-maligned campaign slogan was a clear departure from the image the party had projected before Nov. 8, when Ryan was staring down an insurgence for his refusal to campaign for Trump, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and dozens among the rank-and-file were so exasperated by their nominee that they refused to even utter his name.

But it’s still unclear whether Trump can forge the relationship he will need with Congress to push through an ambitious, and vague, policy agenda — or whether he even wants to. He will also need to keep a lid on the divisions within the party.

Trump’s interactions with Congress have, until now, been so limited that it is impossible to know how he will relate to the institution after he is sworn in.

He is a wild card, a blank slate.

In his favor are signs that Republicans are eager to present a unified front as they prepare to control all three branches of government for the first time in a decade. One notable gesture: The person who made sure those hats were placed on every seat was Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

She is the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress and one of many who previously had made it known that their support of Trump was reluctant. She has since met with the Trump transition team.

But several factors could make it difficult for the president-elect to corral enough votes to push through the more controversial parts of his agenda. They include Trump’s relative unfamiliarity with the political process, his reliance on renegade figures like alt-right idol Stephen Bannon — recently named as Trump’s top White House adviser — and his past espousal of moderate positions that could rankle congressional Republicans.

“What Trump is used to when he negotiates is figuring out the weaknesses of his opponent, grabbing the upper hand and ruthlessly squeezing them as much as he can,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime watcher of Congress. “I’m not sure how well that’s going to work with the Republicans in Congress. It certainly hasn’t worked with previous presidents.”

A celebrity appearance

Before Trump announced his presidential campaign, his relationship with Congress was limited to a handful of appearances as a celebrity witness at committee hearings, business associations with members representing districts where he had real estate interests, and a smattering of contributions to both sides of the aisle.

Trump and his family have given over $20,000 to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

Trump, who’s changed party affiliation seven times between 1999 and 2012, hosted the senator at his Mar-a-Lago country club in 2008. The event raised “large five-figure donations for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, The Washington Post reported.

Schumer has recently downplayed that connection and promised to “go after [Trump] tooth and nail” on issues that run contrary to Democratic Party principles.

“Look, I know him,” Schumer said on ABC’s “This Week” just before Thanksgiving. “We were at meetings together. But I don’t know him very well. I know more about him from his presidential campaign, which I found disappointing in a whole lot of ways.”

Trump on the Hill

When Trump previously visited Congress, he showed little patience for the rules and traditions of the institution. 

In one appearance at a 1993 hearing on Indian casino regulations, Trump arrived late, according to staff members who were there, an orange line where the pancake makeup ended under his chin. He insisted on testifying during the early portion of the hearing usually allotted to members of Congress. He then declared that he had scuttled his “politically correct” remarks and would speak off the cuff.

He claimed that organized crime was rampant at Indian casinos. He scoffed at the idea of Indian tribal sovereignty, which he described as a ploy to avoid paying taxes. He questioned the ethnicity of the tribes approved to run casinos.

“They don’t look like Indians to me, and they don’t look like Indians to Indians, and a lot of people are laughing at it,” he said.

Trump glossed over the fact that the three casinos he owned were threatened by an influx of Indian-owned competitors after a 1988 change in federal law.

He also sparred with Natural Resources Committee Chairman George Miller, a Democrat from California, who questioned Trump’s assertions.

“Look, you have got a totally closed mind on the subject, sir,” Trump said.

“No, no, I don’t,” Miller responded, as staffers looked on in amazement.

“I’d never seen a witness like that before, who was willing to insult George Miller to his face,” said one former staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Usually, people are careful of what is entered into the record. They go out of their way to defer to custom. But he didn’t care what he said. He didn’t care who he insulted.”

Miller recently told The Washington Post that Trump’s was the most “irresponsible” testimony he had heard during his 40 years in Congress.

Trump made other committee appearances — a 1985 Senate hearing about professional sports franchise relocation during Trump’s brief flirtation with team ownership, a 1991 hearing on credit availability for real estate investors and a 2005 hearing on renovations at the U.N. building. Those appearances were more routine.

But Trump still flaunted the rules in small ways.

At the U.N. hearing, for example, one organizer said that Trump talked well over his allotted time, ignoring the warning lights in front of him as they turned from green to yellow to red.

Current and former staffers say Trump’s impatience with congressional procedure might become a sticking point, especially with institutionalists like McConnell.

“If he doesn’t show patience for history and precedent, he’s going to run into some walls, especially with the majority leader,” said one former Republican Senate staffer.

Even so, it may not take much for Trump to improve on the congressional outreach of his predecessor.

“The bar is so low,” said one senior Democratic staffer. “Obama had such a terrible relationship with the Hill. It’s not going to take much to improve on it. Talk to anyone, Democrat or Republican, anyone in the Speaker’s Lobby will tell you that.”

A hard bargain

Trump’s intentions during the early days of his transition have been inscrutable to many outsiders. Some moves have been mainstream, others a shock even to some members of his own party.

He named Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman as his chief of staff. He also tapped Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, as his chief strategist and senior counselor.

Trump announced a broad policy agenda that included several classic conservative talking points, like cutting taxes and rolling back the 2010 health care law. But he also touted an infrastructure plan that would cost $1 trillion, a figure that would make any small-government conservative balk. And in a video providing the first detailed look at his plans for his first 100 days in office, he focused on executive actions. He didn’t mention Congress once.

Priebus, who shares Ryan’s Wisconsin roots, told Fox News shortly after his appointment that part of his job would be whipping votes in Congress. The announcement was welcomed by many Hill denizens eager for familiar faces in the administration.

“Sometimes when it comes to the White House, all you can ask for is having that person you can bring something to,” said Kurt Bardella, a consultant and former spokesman for GOP Rep. Darrell Issa.

But it was Bannon — not Priebus — who reportedly made the first calls to top GOP staffers on Trump’s behalf. 

Bardella also worked for two years as the spokesman for Bannon’s Breitbart News and has been sharply critical of both Bannon and Trump. But he said Hill lawmakers probably appreciated the gesture.

“Given what a lightning-rod, controversial pick that was, and how front and center that person was in the news, it makes sense to do an outreach,” Bardella said.

Others were more wary.

One senior Democratic staffer predicted that Bannon’s role will be similar to Obama’s outgoing senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who has been seen as the policy driver and point person for any deal with Congress.

But it could be a more complicated relationship, given concerns raised even by Republicans about Bannon’s associations with the alt-right, a term attributed to white supremacist Richard Spencer that’s since been embraced by individuals identifying with anything from libertarianism to ethno-nationalism.

Bannon, meanwhile, has hinted that he would not be too concerned about preserving Republicans’ feelings. 

He told The Hollywood Reporter that the administration planned to ram through an “entirely new political movement,” with spending he likened to the New Deal.

Bannon predicted that “the conservatives are going to go crazy.”

Republicans so far have sent mixed messages about how they would react to the new administration.

Party leaders, like Ryan, rallied behind the president-elect.

“What we want to do coming out of the gates is get this economy growing,” Ryan said. He said he wanted to focus on “the drivers of our debt” such as revisions to the tax code and the repeal of the health care law.

Others avoided discussing how much Trump’s spending would add to the deficit.

“We have a debt problem in America that needs to be addressed, but we’re going to wait and see what the proposals are,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, according to The Washington Post.

Weak points

There have also been signs of potential fracture.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former presidential primary rival and one of Trump’s most vocal critics on the Hill during the campaign, called for an investigation of Russian interference in the election, despite Trump’s stated goal of developing a warmer relationship with the country.

“When it comes to all things Russia, I’m going to be kind of a hard ass,” the South Carolina Republican said.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul vowed to block two potential State Department picks he thought were too hawkish — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

The libertarian senator warned that, with a slim majority of 52 Republican votes in the Senate next year, it would only take a few renegades to thwart Trump’s plans.

“It is a very close vote,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Nov. 20.

Democrats appear to be trying to link themselves to issues that could help them win back blue-collar workers who voted for Trump, and looking for ways to drive a wedge between congressional Republicans and the president-elect.

Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called infrastructure spending “an automatic job creator” that “would be a welcome development in the Senate and for the American people.” He also pointed out that Republicans had resisted such proposals in the past.

“Indeed, a silver lining  in the deep clouds of this election is that, on many economic issues, President-elect Trump and his campaign was closer to us than with Republican leadership, which always seems to wind up in the corner of the social interests,” Reid said.

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