Congress on Edge Awaiting Unpredictable Trump

Trump addresses joint session of Congress for first time

Trump walks to the Oval Office after arriving back at the White House after his CPAC speech on Friday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Trump walks to the Oval Office after arriving back at the White House after his CPAC speech on Friday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Posted February 28, 2017 at 5:01am

For most congressional Republicans, Donald Trump has, until now, been a faraway force. His rapid and unprecedented political ascent played out mostly on cable news — and Twitter — far away from the Capitol.

Very few members of the 115th Congress’ Republican caucus were asked to costar or even play bit roles in the reality show that was The Donald’s road to the White House. Though GOP leaders and backbenchers alike condemned some of his campaign-trail antics, they ultimately celebrated his victory and inauguration.

After all, his ascension as a Republican gave the party unified control of Congress and the White House and a chance to pass a slew of conservative policies into law, remake the federal courts and possibly put multiple conservative justices on a Supreme Court now evenly split along ideological lines.

But that changes Tuesday, when the ongoing made-for-television drama that is the Trump presidency makes its debut in the House chamber as Trump addresses a joint session of Congress for the first time.

The atmosphere will likely be tense. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle feel under the microscope and pressured to either defend or attack the new president regarding his every utterance or tweet, and there is no shortage of either of those.

With members of Congress just back from a recess week of town halls filled with protesters and constituents questioning their motives and competence, they know every grimace, furrowed brow, whisper to a colleague or disapproving look may be caught by cameras to be dissected by observers. If ever there was a time to be hypersensitive about image, it’s probably now.

GOP members who opt to remain seated when some of their fellow Republicans rise to applaud might instantly find themselves playing a starring role in Washington’s unexpected reality show.

The setting will mark the intersection of “The West Wing” and “The Apprentice.” And in a true reality television twist, Trump’s fellow Republicans will have nowhere to hide if he opts for a scorched-earth, rule-breaking approach.

Although Trump’s rise and methods represent the culmination of an unrepentantly confrontational brand of politics, other recent presidential addresses to joint sessions have seen their share of rumblings.

Washington, and much of the country, collectively gasped when South Carolina GOP Rep. Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a 2009 joint session address after the 44th president said his then-envisioned health care overhaul package would not cover undocumented immigrants. The outburst resonated with the Republican base, even if its breach of decorum shocked everyone else.

The next year, Obama criticized the Supreme Court from the House chamber after its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.

The high court, he said, “reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.”

Obama’s remarks sparked Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., sitting in the front row, to shake his head and mouth what appeared to be the words “not true” — the face-off, of course, caught on camera.

Combative or unifying?

By Washington standards, a presidential address to a joint session of Congress is the ultimate reality television show, nonfiction but scripted in its own way. And standing at the podium in the heart of a packed House chamber, which is large but uniquely intimate, will be a president who has shown signs he intends to run the White House as if he were still hosting “The Apprentice.”

Trump’s baiting and give-and-take antics since taking office suggest he could set off even bigger shock waves with his first speech to lawmakers. Just imagine if he catches a sour look from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. Could he resist identifying his fellow New Yorker, as he did recently, as the “head clown” of congressional Democrats? Or perhaps the president will repeat his assessment that Schumer is merely a “lightweight.”

Trump’s preferred brand of television, as seen in his predilection for watching massive amounts of cable news shows, is brash, loud and often combative. It rarely shies from controversy and relishes a good fight. And while the comparisons to reality television might seem like throwaway lines on social media, the president himself has done little to distance himself from the TV-ratings mindset.

Just recall his Jan. 31 introduction of Judge Neil Gorsuch as his Supreme Court nominee. While summoning another candidate for the seat to Washington as a feint, Trump had Gorsuch quietly ferried into the White House as a national television audience watched and the president introduced his pick. The manufactured suspense could have been borrowed from “The Bachelor,” or any other show that wants audiences to think there’s an actual choice going down to the wire, even if it’s already been made.

That was followed by the circus-like atmosphere of his search for a national security adviser to replace Michael Flynn. On Feb. 17, Trump tweeted out the progress so far: “General Keith Kellogg, who I have known for a long time, is very much in play for NSA — as are three others.” Kellogg was the acting national security adviser after Flynn’s departure.

He interviewed Kellogg, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen at his plush Mar-a-Lago resort in the weekend that followed before announcing that McMaster had got the job. Fittingly, the announcement was made from Mar-a-Lago, with Trump and McMaster framed by a massive arrangement of roses in the background, the flower of choice, it may be noted, on “The Bachelor.”

Now, Trump will headline one of the few political events for which the major networks still interrupt regular programming, giving up valuable ad time in lieu of words from the country’s leader about the state of the union (although technically this is not a State of the Union, since new presidents don’t theoretically have time to survey the country thusly), and his ideas for making it better — or, in his trademarked slogan, “great again.”

John Feehery, a Republican political strategist, said the stakes are high for Trump to connect with members — and that will be key to enacting his agenda.

“I think the president is trying to get a second chance to make a first impression. That is never easy. [It’s the] first time he’s going to have an opportunity to look like a leader in front of legislators,” said Feehery, a former senior House Republican leadership aide.

Past presidents faced “a clear group of detractors, and a clear group of cheerleaders” in their addresses to Congress, Feehery said. How does he see this breaking down for Trump?

“I think Donald Trump will have the greatest number of detractors there since any president since Richard Nixon,” he said. “This might not be hostile territory for Trump, but it is foreign territory — this is the swamp he promised to drain.”

Michael Steel, another GOP strategist who was a senior aide to former Speaker John A. Boehner and current Speaker Paul D. Ryan when Ryan was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, said the address “should be a unifying event.”

Steel, a senior adviser for Jeb Bush’s presidential run last year who is now with Hamilton Place Strategies, said Trump should use the address to answer one pressing question: “The American people are looking for a road map — how do we turn the vision of making America great again into reality?”

No stranger to Capitol Hill and the politics of presidential addresses, Steel sees a potential trap for Democrats rather than GOP members.

“I think it’s a much more tricky spot for Democratic members,” he said. “Democrats are going to be under tremendous pressure from their base to demonstrate … or to act up. But doing that, not letting the president be heard in such an important forum, risks a major backlash.”

On that point, Feehery agrees with his fellow GOP strategist: “I don’t think Democrats are going to treat him that well. … I think Nancy Pelosi should sit her members down and say, ‘You need to be respectful or this will hurt us.’”

To be sure, there are worries among conservatives about which Trump will show up: the elbow-throwing campaigner who used a Feb. 18 campaign rally in Melbourne, Florida, to again attack the media, or the president who toured the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington last week, striking a respectful tone in remarks on his way back to the White House.

Karlyn Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said the speech is a “unique opportunity” for Trump to “really make it something important” by adopting a unifying tone and speaking “directly to all Republicans and Democrats.” Yet she noted that while “this shouldn’t be a combative moment,” even conservatives “don’t know what to expect from him anymore.”

Feehery said the scene will present a tricky situation for GOP members, who will have to avoid angering the new Republican president. “They have to put aside their personal feelings and understand who they’re representing, and where their constituents are,” he said.

His advice for them is to keep their conservative constituents in mind, among whom Trump remains popular. Put another way, they should think about their own 2018 re-election efforts. “Republicans really do need to welcome him warmly,” Feehery said.

For their part, Democratic lawmakers and experts — and even one GOP governor — say Trump’s brash style is unlike anything they’ve seen before, adding to the sense of drama.

One of Trump’s general election combatants last year, the Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, smiled widely when asked his thoughts about the scene to come — especially should Trump spy a Republican member or two grimacing or disagreeing with his remarks. “It’s going to be very different. It’ll be high-stakes drama” for Trump’s party, the Virginia senator said.

Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage, no stranger himself to dramatic standoffs with legislators and the press, endorsed candidate Trump last February, saying at that time that he believed the real estate mogul “could be one of the greatest presidents if he sits down and puts together a good team.”

A year later, President Trump dismissed his national security adviser on Day 25, saw his first Labor secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, withdraw two days later, and used part of a remarkably combative press conference the day after to aggressively push back on reports of chaos inside his White House.

LePage said Trump should check the made-for-TV antics at the South Portico door. “We got to tell him that the TV show’s over and he’s gotta move on now,” he told Maine’s Newsradio WGAN.

Though Steel thinks Democrats are in a trickier spot, he acknowledges that the president must strike a “balance” with his message, including with his own party. “Congress doesn’t like being dictated to,” he said.

At the same time, Steel said GOP lawmakers are looking for Trump to display “strong presidential leadership on specific policy issues.” He sees major divisions on Capitol Hill about how best to tackle some of Trump’s biggest agenda items, including health insurance coverage, a tax overhaul and others. “He could help bring clarity to those,” Steel said.

‘Sit down!’

As lawmakers prepared to leave town ahead of last week’s Presidents Day recess, Trump conducted his first solo White House press conference, a 77-minute diatribe, chock full of score-settling, gripes, and attacks on the media, Democrats and the appellate court that kept a freeze in place on his executive order temporarily banning individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Before Trump strode into the East Room, there was talk in Washington that he was using the press conference and his announcement of thrice-Senate-confirmed Alexander Acosta as his new Labor secretary as a way to reset his presidency — less than a month in.

Instead, he let the world know he is unlikely to change his style or back away easily from policy promises that he campaigned on. After quickly dispatching the news about Acosta, Trump settled into his comfort zone, jousting with the press.

At various points, he barked at reporters to “Sit down!” and silenced one journalist with a “Quiet! Quiet! Quiet!” He also dropped a string of statements that fact-checkers deemed falsehoods. The East Room scene led one Clinton-era White House official to declare himself at a loss for words when asked to react.

“A president elected with only 46 percent of the American people should have a strategy of broadening his support or reaching out to those who did not support him in the campaign,” said William Galston, now at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. “Instead, President Trump is doing the exact opposite: Speaking only to the people who already agree with him — but speaking in a manner that is troubling to even many of them.”

It’s the last part of Galston’s observation that could present awkward moments for Republicans in the House chamber should Trump, as he often does, depart from the sort of prepared remarks that appeal to much of his party and begin ad-libbing his sharp populist rhetoric.

When reporters last year asked Republicans on Capitol Hill about some of Trump’s most controversial campaign statements, many either declined to comment or suggested the party pursue a different solution, all while avoiding mention of Trump by name. Since his election, many have uttered some version of “let’s give the president some time” to settle in.

His most contentious move as commander in chief, the still-blocked travel ban executive order, provides an example of how GOP members have handled their new president. Some offered full support. But many chose their words, mostly in written statements, very carefully, saying they oppose religious tests that would violate the Constitution while throwing their support behind tightening vetting procedures for entry into the U.S.

Such nuanced dance steps have allowed them to put some distance between Trump’s policies and themselves. But with the president standing in the same House chamber on Tuesday night, the distance that provided them political cover will be gone, and many could feel too close to Trump for comfort.

Can Republicans hold their facial muscles in a stoic or smiling expression should Trump opt against a message of unity and continue his attacks on political rivals? And how will Trump react if he catches a fellow Republican reacting more like, say, a Democrat?

A preview for how Republicans handle the address came just before the week-long recess, as Trump’s biggest GOP backers and critics reacted to Flynn’s departure after reports that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about discussing sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Asked if the strikingly early dismissal led him to begin to question Trump’s judgment, California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter replied, “No. No.”

An early Trump supporter, Hunter said the president is “still less than a month in” and that Trump and his top lieutenants are still figuring out how to run the White House.

“Especially with the way that Trump, I think, operates, it’s going to take a couple more weeks,” Hunter said. “I think they’re still finding out who they’ve got, and how these guys actually are going to work in this environment of governing.”

Oklahoma GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe is effusive in his praise of Trump, a signal that some of the Hill’s most conservative members will likely applaud — often while rising in standing ovations — the policy prescriptions Trump might lay out.

In Inhofe’s view, Trump is running his White House like a business, just as he promised during the campaign, and demanding accountability from his aides.

“I think the president is really concerned that if someone doesn’t give full disclosure to their superiors, he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Inhofe said of Flynn’s forced resignation. “The best way to do that is to come to an agreement that he’s gone.”

Other Republican Trump backers, however, have chosen their words carefully, and will likely be trying hard to play it cool inside the House chamber. Georgia Sen. David Perdue, who met with Trump in early December in New York about a potential Cabinet position, chafed at the notion that the White House’s handling of the Flynn situation shows dysfunction.

“The administration is fine,” he said, moving toward a Capitol subway car amid a group of reporters. “These things happen. It’s unfortunate.” When a reporter tried a new line of questioning about Flynn, Perdue ended the impromptu gaggle, saying, “That’s all I have to say about it.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who was considered for secretary of State in Trump’s Cabinet, sidestepped a question about whether the president’s judgment should be questioned after he hired Flynn despite warnings from some experts, keeping him in a key position for weeks after the Justice Department notified the White House of troublesome discussions he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

There are ample issues on which factions within the Republican caucus might disagree with the new president — on foreign policy and national security, for example — and many of the Hill’s defense hawks are far from wilting flowers. Their leader, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, said the Flynn debacle is evidence of a mismanaged administration. “It’s a dysfunctional White House. We know nobody knows who’s in charge,” the Arizona Republican said. “Nobody knows who is setting policy.” Expect plenty of McCain grimaces. Can his GOP cohorts play it cooler?

That’s why Bowman, of the AEI, would like to see Trump and McCain shake hands as the president enters the House chamber. She thinks such a moment would allow Trump to essentially signal that he respects the other parts of government by saying, “We have our differences, but the House and Senate are important branches.”

Since taking office, Trump has attacked federal courts and his top aides have explained the White House’s view of executive powers in ways that have led legal experts to question the administration’s understanding of the equal branches concept.

Yet, it is his brash and unprecedented body of work during his first month in office that makes it so hard to determine just how much is at stake for his fledgling presidency.

“I’m not sure we can even know how high the stakes are for the president,” Bowman said. “With the tweeting and everything else, this has been so different than what other presidents have done. … The setting, in the House chamber, makes this a real opportunity for him.”

She also sees potential trouble for GOP members. After all, Bowman said, “it was their constituents who elected this president.” Trump knows that too, which could spawn presidential frustration if he senses some aren’t on board with specific parts of his first major address.

“I think he should try and stay as far above that fray, should any of that transpire, as possible,” Bowman said. But the New York native, little more than a month into his tenure, remains very much the fighter in chief. For that reason, just about anything is possible after these words are spoken from the back of the House chamber: “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.”