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Trump Faces the Audience That Matters More: Hill Republicans

State of the Union may be forgotten, but GOP lawmakers will remember his bid for party loyalty in crucial coming months

President Donald Trump speaks during the joint session of Congress to deliver his State of the Union Address in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump speaks during the joint session of Congress to deliver his State of the Union Address in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Fresh off one speech designed to conjure an implausible degree of unity in the country, President Donald Trump will deliver another address designed to sustain his implausible degree of unity with Republicans on the Hill.

Tuesday’s State of the Union was all about persuading his national television audience, only two-fifths of which approves of his first year in office, to come around to the view of a “new American moment” in which a burst of economic vigor and the promise of tax cuts should be enough to sustain satisfaction past the next election.

Thursday’s presentation to GOP senators and House members, gathered for their annual retreat in the Allegheny Mountains, will be all about convincing those lawmakers to remain loyal when his minimalist and ideologically mixed legislative program inevitably gets eclipsed by the president’s own travails.

Neither piece of rhetoric is going to get widely remembered beyond this week — or even that long, given the fatal crash of the chartered train carrying the Republicans toward the lush Greenbrier resort.

Watch: Why Does Congress ‘Retreat?’

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What happens after any Trump release of the secret House GOP memo alleging FBI abuses at the outset of the Russia investigation, and then how he handles his compulsory interactions with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and any prosecutorial aftermath — those will be moments in this presidency destined to be long recalled as polarizing to the electorate, galvanizing for the political class, and perhaps rattling of American democracy.

The abiding question is how well the president gets prepared for those destabilizing turning points. Beyond regulating his Twitter outrage, he’ll need to persuade the lawmakers of his adopted political party to keep sticking with him even if their shared governing goals get suspended and their collective electoral future starts looking much bleaker than it already does.

His best opportunity to make that sale to the GOP rank and file, maybe for the rest of the midterm campaign season, looks to be his midday appearance at the West Virginia hotel.

Marching lockstep

During the first year of his presidency, Trump has had remarkable success with congressional Republicans, especially given how few of them were by his side on the way to his improbable victory.

Only 11 members of this Congress had endorsed him before he locked up the party’s nomination, an unprecedentedly small roster. And at the time of the election, 43 of today’s Republican members (fully 15 percent of them) had publicly declared they would not vote for him, withdrawn previous endorsements or called on him to abandon his candidacy, most of them after hearing his sexually crude boasting on the Access Hollywood tape.  

But during his first year in office, the president enjoyed nearly unprecedented success at the Capitol, getting his way on 98 percent of the roll call votes in which his position was clearly understood in advance. That was in part because he chose a smaller number of pending roll call votes to care about than any other modern president — just 5 percent in the House and 9 percent of the non-confirmation matters in the Senate — and in part because Republicans marched in remarkable lockstep to his tune. Two-dozen senators, or just under half, along with 90 GOP House members, three of every eight, supported Trump’s wishes 100 percent of the time.

There will be even fewer opportunities this year for the president to harness Republicans in Congress uniformly behind his policymaking ideas. That’s in part because election years are almost always shorter on legislating. But it’s all the more so because Trump’s agenda as laid out in his State of the Union address is packed with long-shot aspirations requiring the sort of Democratic buy-in that will prompt many GOP conservatives to run in the other direction.

Watch: The State of the Union in 3 Minutes

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Getting Republicans to back any accord on immigration, centered on a grand bipartisan bargain of a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers in return for construction of a border wall for Trump, is the president’s most immediate and almost irreversible imperative and will prove exceedingly difficult.

And while a GOP majority may embrace Trump’s push for $1.5 trillion in public works spending through public-private partnerships, there is no remotely similar level of support for other proposals from the speech such as promoting paid family leave, making prescription drugs less expensive or helping convicted felons get a societal “second chance.”

Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance aside, and notwithstanding any bold ideas that gain a burst of enthusiasm at the Greenbrier, this year has all the hallmarks of a desultory period for lawmaking.

Troubled waters

Most of the spring and summer will be consumed by another grinding, and probably unsuccessful, effort to prevent the supposed-to-be-routine annual budgeting process from devolving into melodramatic partisan stalemates — on both spending and the next unavoidable increase in the federal borrowing limit. And that dispiriting forecast even assumed a grudging deal soon to increase defense and domestic discretionary appropriations caps for both the current one-third-completed fiscal year and the next.

Most Republicans seeking re-election will work to fill the void by endlessly echoing Trump’s State of the Union themes about how the tax cut they helped engineer is surefire fuel for sustaining the economic boom of the past year.

Their hope is that adopting such a  mantra will help them delay, if not forever avoid, having to say something not altogether glowing about their fealty to the president — which they’ll all surely be asked back home, if not during their primaries, then certainly if they are confronted in the  fall by a remotely viable Democratic opponent.

Watch: Which Members of Congress Might Not Be Back in 2019?

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What’s not yet clear is what happens in the minds of these nail-bitingly-faithful Republican members if, between now and Election Day, the special counsel’s Russia investigation produces an unavoidably big problem for the president.

A formalized allegation that Trump obstructed justice is the most obvious option, but the president could bring almost as much trouble on himself if he seeks to short-circuit the inquiry that bedevils him by demanding his inquisitor’s dismissal

Wednesday’s not-seeking-re-election announcement by South Carolina’s Trey Gowdy pushed past 10 percent the number of Republican members (now including an astonishing 11 committee chairmen) who have left or have committed to leaving Congress at the end of the year. This extraordinary rush to the exits is at least partly explained as members deciding that a proactive response to signs of Trump fatigue is better than waiting to see how much those signals turn into a cacophony of electorate anger.

The roster is destined to expand in the coming months, but for now there are three-dozen House members and a solitary senator, Nevada’s Dean Heller, on the roster of Republican incumbents confronting reasonable-to-intense prospects of losing their seats to a Democrat come November.

It’s many of these lawmakers who will be considering avoiding eye contact with Thursday’s luncheon speaker at the Greenbriar.

An essential and highly complicating part of Trump’s public personality — as underscored so many times during his not-yet four years in national politics — is an insistent need for professions of loyalty from people he’s counting on to be unfailing defenders and promoters. Pressing for such obedience, and from the very officials sworn to make sure no one is beyond the law, is what may put the president in more legal jeopardy than any other action.

As Trump prepares to confront that, he will need to rely as never before on fidelity from Capitol Hill. And this level of allegiance will need to extend well beyond voting records and sway Republican members in their core of political self-preservation.

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