November 22, 2017
Friday, May 19, 2017

As Donald Trump’s woes grow, support on Capitol Hill wavers

US president Donald Trump awaits a visitor to the White House in this file photo.
US president Donald Trump awaits a visitor to the White House in this file photo.
US president Donald Trump awaits a visitor to the White House in this file photo.
By Marc Fisher
The Washington Post

Shaken Republicans nervously distance themselves from US president

WASHINGTON — The world spins faster these days, but in Washington, as President Donald Trump is now learning, the essential chemistry of crisis — quick to boil, difficult to dampen — hasn’t changed in four decades.

Tom Railsback, one of the last surviving members of the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon, recalls the moment he knew he and his party finally had to break with their wayward president. “I personally liked Richard Nixon,” said Railsback, a Republican from Illinois who is now 85. “But I reached a point — a number of us did — where we all felt that this was the most important decision of our lives.”

No such decision confronts Republicans in Congress or the administration right now, but within the president’s party this week, what had been a fairly solid wall of support has suddenly developed cracks — the latest being the appointment late Wednesday of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s role in the last election. Are those cracks dangerous splits in the foundation of Trump’s support or merely cosmetic chinks that might be patched by, say, a successful presidential trip to Europe and the Middle East?

“The danger he faces is his own party, with a growing chorus of leading Republicans who want to distance themselves from Trump because he has the smell of a wounded animal,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who met with the president-elect at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, in December as Trump prepared to take office. “Right now, there aren’t many Republicans in Congress facing re-election who are going to want to be in photo opportunities with him. He’s a man without coattails.”

But where some see the start of a snowballing opposition, others caution that a momentary crisis does not necessarily imply collapse.

“I see the parallels with Watergate, but the differences are enormous,” said David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University. “We are so far from the mountain of evidence we had in the spring of 1973. Some Republicans feel it’s imperative now to furrow their brows about Trump’s behaviour, but for the most part, they are still very much on board with him. We’re in the early stages, certainly not the endgame.”

In the Watergate scandal, hard evidence — including the burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the discovery of Nixon’s White House taping system — as well as convictions of some of the president’s aides made it easier for Republicans to break with their president, Railsback said. He does not think that the crisis that has engulfed the Trump presidency has reached that point, but he viscerally recalls the feeling of collapsing confidence that led him and his fellow Republicans to discard core beliefs about loyalty and party discipline.

“It was easier then because things were a lot more non-partisan, and in those days I had very good friends that were Democrats,” he said. “But there came a point when both parties had to tone down the rhetoric and look for the common good.”

On Capitol Hill and in the conservative media Wednesday, by word and by gesture, Republicans edged away from the president whose world-shaking election last fall had put them where they’d dreamed of being since 2007 — finally in position to turn their ideas into action.

But after a whirlwind first hundred days of china-breaking rhetoric and frustratingly stalled progress on Trump’s biggest initiatives, this new presidency has become mired in the mud of scandal: the firing of the FBI director, who was leading an investigation into any role Russia may have played in Trump’s election. The president’s decision to share classified information with Russian officials. A report that Trump had asked that FBI chief, James Comey, whether he might shut down an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Then, on Wednesday, the Justice Department announced the appointment of a special counsel, heightening the sense of an administration under siege.

Republicans in Congress moved from ritual statements of solidarity to worries about Trump’s “troubling” behaviour, and from assurances that the process was working to outright calls for independent investigations of the president’s actions.

Sometimes, silence spelled out the shift in Republican support for the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ignored questions from reporters about the controversies. On Fox News, where Republican lawmakers are most comfortable speaking to their base, anchor Bret Baier on Tuesday night told viewers that he had found no-one to defend the president. “We’ve tried tonight to get Republicans to come out and talk to us, and there are not Republicans willing to go on camera tonight,” he said. “This story changed the dynamic on Capitol Hill.”


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