The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How much did Trump’s tweets really have to do with the Hill GOP’s ethics reversal?

House Republicans' botched attempt at reforming ethics investigations, explained (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Some were quick to give Donald Trump credit for scoring a big win within his own party Tuesday when House Republicans suddenly opted to drop controversial changes to an independent ethics office.

But House Republicans aren't necessarily jumping to offer the president-elect credit for their head-spinning reversal on the issue, which came hours after Trump tweeted his criticism Tuesday morning.

For one thing, aside from the #DTS (drain the swamp) hashtag, he doesn't actually disagree with Republicans on the substance of the move — the office is "unfair," he writes. It's just the timing he seems to take issue with.

And some House Republicans say they just weren't prepared for the media storm that hit them when news of the rules change broke.

"I don't think that a lot of people believed that the press would be as bad as it was," Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) told reporters.

Congressional experts say Trump's tweet undeniably had some effect on Republicans' decision to suddenly drop the ethics changes. Draining an independent ethics office of power is not on-brand with Trump's "drain the swamp" message, a populist platform that proved terribly efficient at vaulting him and Republicans into power in 2017.

In that sense, Trump's words matter. Ryan credited Trump with helping Republicans sweep Wisconsin at the federal level in November, and he and other Republican leaders know all too well how quickly Trump can turn on them.

To that point, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a recent chairman of the ethics committee embroiled in all this, told reporters that House GOP leadership said Trump's opposition "should be a consideration" in whether to pull the rule. In a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, Republicans nearly unanimously decided to pull it.

But Republicans also have a reputation to uphold beyond the one with their president. In a few weeks, they'll have nearly all the keys to Washington — Congress, the White House,  the power to put a conservative on the Supreme Court — and no one else to blame but themselves for anything that goes wrong.

"Republicans have unified control of Washington for the first time since 2006, and they have an ambitious agenda that they want to start working on right away," said Molly Reynolds, a congressional analyst with the Brookings Institution. "It’s not in their interest to have things in the news that distract from that."

Some members of Congress do have serious issues with the Office of Congressional Ethics, issues they say the media failed to grasp when reporting the changes to the office, said Joe Kasper, chief of staff to Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.).

Hunter didn't write the rule change, but he supported it after spending much of this past year under investigation by the office for campaign expenditures for transport for a family pet rabbit, money he said was an oversight and that he quickly repaid but felt the office unfairly pursued.

Still, no one's going to cry for a member of Congress who feels he or she has been unfairly investigated by an ethics committee. And as the public pressure piled on from all sides, and calls poured into Capitol Hill, more and more Republicans started to realize that, even before Trump tweeted his thoughts, the GOP should table the changes (at least for now.)

"It's a hard issue for a lot of members to deal with," Kasper said. "And it's an issue that most members want to avoid."

Republican leaders were already squeamish about the change before the media or Trump knew what was happening. GOP staffers told reporters that when Republicans were discussing it Monday night, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) didn't like the political optics of it. (Ryan ended up sending out a statement Tuesday saying he supported the rules change, just a few minutes after Trump criticized it.)

Trump's tweet may have actually offered Republicans an alternative path to the same destination: just wait for the controversy to blow over. Congressional ethics expert Norman Ornstein, a vocal opponent of the ethics changes, summarized Trump's tweets like this: "In effect what he's saying is, 'Hey, don't kill it in broad daylight at noon in Times Square; wait a few months and drag it behind a back alley and nobody will see.' "

In the end, Ornstein says the Republican flip-flop on the ethics change was probably the result of a perfect storm of pressure: Trump's tweets; the sensitivity around their first and potentially narrative-setting day in power; and a stronger-than-expected backlash in the media and from constituents, whose calls flooded Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Not a matter of debate: the fact that this was just a dumb political play for Republicans to pursue on their first day in office.

"Even without Trump as president," said Catholic University history Prof.  Matt Green, "it was just a bad PR move."