Trump sends message to frustrated GOP: ‘I have to do what I have to do’

Experts see cracks in the Hill-White House alliance — but no ‘tipping point’ yet

President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House before speaking to members of the media on Oct. 10. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House before speaking to members of the media on Oct. 10. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 22, 2019 at 5:00am

“I have to do what I have to do.”

That was President Donald Trump on Monday, resurfacing in public following one of the most turbulent weeks of his presidency — and perhaps the first when congressional Republicans really let their frustrations show.

Even after he backed down on holding next year’s G-7 summit at his Doral resort in South Florida in the face of GOP objections, Trump signaled anew that he has no plans to change his approach. But increasingly, his insistence that he is right is turning off Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“I’ve got to do what I got elected on,” he said Monday during a Cabinet meeting. “And I’ve got to do what I think is right.”

Republican members have almost always stood by Trump. But from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney to Florida Rep. Francis Rooney and beyond, some GOP members finally appear to have had enough after his decision to abandon Syria’s Kurds, followed days later by a White House announcement that the G-7 summit would be held at a troubled resort owned by the president.

[Trump’s big night in Big D: Three takeaways from ‘overthrow’ rally in Dallas]

Trump announced late Saturday night the global leaders would huddle elsewhere in June. But by Monday, he was sending a not-so-veiled message to his Republican troops: Be more like Democrats.

“I think the Democrats fight dirty. I think the Democrats are lousy politicians with lousy policy,” he said during another extended Q&A session at a Cabinet meeting. “They don’t care about almost anything.

But two things they have: They’re vicious and they stick together,” he said, sounding almost like a sports coach giving a pep talk rather than a commander in chief. “They don’t have Mitt Romney in their midst. … You never see someone break out.” That ignores several Democrats who have voiced support only for an impeachment inquiry or have said they still need more information to make a decision.

Regardless, the president looked to buck up his fellow Republicans, perhaps none so more than those in the Senate who would vote during any possible floor trial, if the House votes to impeach him.

“Republicans have to get tougher and fight,” Trump said. “We have some that are great fighters, but they have to get tougher and fight because the Democrats are trying to hurt the Republican Party for the election, which is coming up.”

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Chinks in the armor

Asked about any behind-the-scenes message for frustrated Republicans, a senior White House official shot back, “I don’t know what they’re so upset about.”

Some of those Republicans, though, have not been shy about voicing why they are upset.

Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, told Axios that Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria amounts to “a very dark spot in America’s history,” adding, “We should never abandon our friends.”

On Trump’s requests for governments in Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Democratic opponent in 2020, the Utah senator said: “We certainly can’t have presidents asking foreign countries to provide something of political value. That is, after all, against the law.”

That surfaced after McConnell penned a Washington Post op-ed, without naming Trump, that branded the Syria pullout a “grave strategic mistake.”

“As neo-isolationism rears its head on both the left and the right, we can expect to hear more talk of ‘endless wars.’ But rhetoric cannot change the fact that wars do not just end; wars are won or lost,” the Kentucky Republican wrote in a rebuke to Trump, who uses the expression “endless wars” often. “America’s wars will be ‘endless’ only if America refuses to win them.”

And Rooney said he has not ruled out deciding that Trump committed an impeachable act by requesting Ukraine’s new government investigate his Democratic foes. “It’s certainly very, very serious and troubling,” he told CNN last week. “Every time one of these ambassadors comes and talks, we learn a lot more. … I don’t think you can rule anything out until you’ve got all the facts.” (Rooney later announced he would not seek a third term.)

[Impeachment news roundup: Oct. 21 – OMB officials refuse to testify]

A tipping point?

Political observers say there are cracks in the Republican-Trump alliance.

“The thing about tipping points is you never know you’re in one, until you’re actually in one,” said Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Are we at least likely moving toward a tipping point? It’s more likely today than it was a few months ago.”

David Brady, a political science professor at Stanford, said all signs point to a fed-up GOP caucus, suggesting Trump keeps putting himself in a more and more precarious position.

“If the entire Congress, and especially Republicans, had an anonymous ballot vote today, he would be gone,” Brady said. “They’re tired of the ups and downs and all of the shenanigans.”

But that’s where House and Senate rules, along with political realities, all converge.

“But it’s not a secret ballot. So, if you’re trying to keep your seat in the House or Senate, there’s just no strong incentive for you to do anything but keep publicly support this president,” Brady said of congressional Republicans. “The true breaking point would only come if he starts to lose that 40 percent support he’s held since Day One. That’s his base. That’s their base.”

Mayer noted how Republicans — especially in the Senate — stuck with President Richard Nixon for much of the Watergate scandal.

“With Nixon, the tipping point coming was more gradual,” he said. “In the last few months before August 1974, his support among Republican voters went from ‘good’ to ‘This is over.’ For senators, it probably again comes down to how they think standing by a president affects their political future.”