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Biggest Challenge of 2017: Can Republicans Tame Trump?

History may judge ‘enablers’ harshly

Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd after being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd after being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Congressional retreats are generally of interest only to lobbyists, policy analysts and Capitol Hill reporters. But when the House and Senate Republicans retreat north Wednesday to the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia, their three-day, corporate-sponsored conference may hold lasting significance.

With Donald Trump making an appearance, the featured item on the agenda will be order and timing of Republican legislative priorities. In normal times, nothing would have more heft than a new president’s legislative agenda from tax cuts to repealing Obamacare.

But these are not — on the rare chance you haven’t noticed — normal times.

Instead, the lasting importance of the GOP retreat may lie in the corridor gossip and late-night conversations among principled Republicans about how to react to Trump in the White House. As the first weekend of the Trump presidency demonstrated, Republicans have to decide how far they are willing to go in their Faustian bargain with the erratic narcissist in the White House.

For those with a tweet-first-and-think-later attention span, let me briefly review some of the highlights of the first three days of the Trump Era:

  • Standing in front of the honor roll of martyred CIA agents, the president offered what would charitably be described as a “wacko” speech — boasting about his appearances on the cover of Time magazine, and his youthful vigor.
  • In his first appearance in the White House briefing room, Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued an angry statement on inaugural crowds filled with enough false claims to recall the heyday of Richard Nixon’s mouthpiece, Ron Ziegler.
  • Kellyanne Conway, normally the president’s sanest public advocate, conjured up the diabolical notion of “alternative facts” in an alternative-reality appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
  • Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal offered a chilling front-page headline Monday about the new national security adviser: “U.S. Eyes Michael Flynn’s Links to Russia.” It appears that Flynn is under investigation by an interagency governmental task force. In another context, you could imagine Democrats angrily, but unfairly, chanting, “Lock him up.”
  • And we haven’t even gotten to the new president being sued for violating the constitutional clause about accepting payments from governments.

Tick-tock

Forget the first 100 days. We’re talking about the first 72 hours.

Many Republicans headed for Philadelphia — privately appalled at Trump’s mendacity and his disdain for dignity — will probably calculate that the trade-offs are worth it. That, in a modern political environment, tolerating a bumptious bully like Trump represents the only way to repeal Obamacare, cut taxes and add at least one new conservative justice to the Supreme Court.

Other congressional Republicans will quake in fear at the personal political costs of crossing a president as vindictive as Trump. Skittish House members may think of Eric Cantor’s 2014 primary defeat and imagine what it would be like to have the White House weigh in on behalf of an insurgent challenger.

In truth, these fears are probably overrated. The only president who embarked on a public purge of his own party was Franklin Roosevelt who attempted to oust four senior senators in 1938 primaries — and lost each race.

In 2014, I co-authored, with Jill Lawrence, a Brookings Institution study of House primaries that demonstrated that the Cantor race was a unicorn-level aberration. Instead, the languid mood in both parties was reflected in the title of the paper, “Phoning It In and Failing to Show: The Story of the 2014 House Primaries.”

Or take the situation facing Arizona’s Jeff Flake, one of the never-Trump GOP senators, who could face a 2018 primary challenge.

Sounds ominous until you try to calculate how a Trump acolyte might approach such a primary. Since Flake has been careful to maintain a conservative voting record, it would be difficult to come at him from the right. And, even if the White House were to get involved, is disloyalty to President Trump really enough to sustain a single-issue primary challenge?

Lie low?

Conventional political analysis suggests that the shrewd move is for GOP legislators to keep their heads down and focus on their legislative dreams. When, after all, has a Republican gotten into trouble for voting for lower taxes?

The problem with wait-and-see timidity though is that these are not conventional times. About the only certainty in politics is the two-word mantra: “Nobody knows.”

The pundits and political consultants who were wrong about the 2016 presidential race remain unabashed about their superpowers to divine the future. But put aside their glib predictions about 2018 — and, instead, embrace the baffling uncertainty of it all.

There is a simple, if unconventional, approach to situations where the political implications are impossible to decipher. In that “Emergency — Break Glass” moment, there is always the desperate ploy of resorting to principle.

This transcends ideology — and points directly to the norms of democracy. If Trump does things that violate traditions that every president (even Nixon) adhered to, then GOP legislators speak out.

The power of Republicans to criticize Trump’s excesses lies in the reality that such interventions cannot be dismissed as Democratic posturing or political payback. Yes, some Republicans will be a tempted to slavishly follow the White House talking points under the false-flag doctrine of alternative facts.

But history and — maybe the voters — will judge such Trump Republican enablers harshly.

Asked in Philadelphia in 1787 what the constitutional convention had just created, Benjamin Franklin supposedly replied, “A republic if you can keep it.” Two hundred and thirty years later, Republicans in Philadelphia this week would be wise to start thinking about the keeping.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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