If there's one consistent tone President Trump takes toward Congress — especially Republicans in Congress — it's frustration. Frustration that some GOP lawmakers aren't loyal. Frustration they are nine months into controlling Washington and have no major legislative accomplishments. Just general frustration.
Trump's allies are piling on. Vice President Pence's chief of staff, Nick Ayers, suggested to Republican donors last week they “purge” GOP lawmakers who don't support the president's agenda. The conversation, confirmed by The Fix, was originally reported by Politico. This week, Bloomberg reported Trump's former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, wants to primary almost every single Republican senator up for reelection next year to help pass Trump's agenda.
You could argue (and the president's supporters do) that this is a little bit of needed tough love, a shove from the White House to force a gridlocked Congress to get something done.
But how fair is it for Team Trump to entirely blame Congress for its lackluster nine months in office? Does the White House share some of the blame? After asking this to both sides, let's debate by breaking down the four main reasons Trump blames Congress for his woes.
1. Republicans had seven years — seven years! — to come up with a plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act: Republicans in Congress voted dozens of times on an Obamacare repeal when President Barack Obama was in power. When they finally had control of Congress and the White House, they couldn't get it done.
From Trump's perspective, he helped them keep their majorities, miraculously handed them control of the White House, and they choked.
Why GOP leaders in Congress say that's not fair: Well, in the House, they did pass a version of an Obamacare repeal. It got stopped up in the Senate. GOP Senate leaders have three things to say about that:
- They don't really have a governing majority like the House does. They have just 52 members and only a two-vote margin to pass legislation.
- Passing major social reform legislation takes time and multiple attempts.
- Trump doesn't seem to recognize either of those difficulties.
Here's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaking to supporters in August: “Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before. And I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”
2. Trump largely outsourced Obamacare repeal to the Hill: At the time, it made sense to Trump. He has no policy experience, and he has surrounded himself with a team that's largely lacking Hill experience. Plus, it's the legislature's job to write legislation. But nine months later, it hasn't repealed Obamacare nor put together a full tax reform bill, and from his perspective Republicans in Congress deserve much of the blame.
Why GOP leaders in Congress say that's not a fair criticism: Yeah, but Trump didn't do his part to sell their health-care bill to the American people, they say. The bill dropped off a cliff in popularity, and Trump mentioned it only a couple of times in rallies. He even dissed it, calling House Republicans' version mean, and launching into distracting Twitter wars.
“Congress's de facto stance is gridlock,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) presidential campaign. “Without leadership Congress does nothing.”
3. Trump is good at channeling his base: And his base is frustrated at Congress. In a September Washington Post-ABC News poll, 64 percent of conservatives disapprove of the job Republicans are doing in Congress. That group feels the exact opposite when it comes to Trump: 65 percent of conservatives approve of the job he's doing.
So why wouldn't Trump cast blame on Congress? Its popularity is already in the mud and The Post's White House team reports there are signs Trump is worried about his base: “The president has groused to numerous White House aides about his concerns over his popularity with 'my people.' ”
“Voter anger at Washington is the warm water that fed Hurricane Trump,” said Doug Heye, a GOP consultant. “He has shown that he can use that to his advantage.”
Why GOP leaders in Congress say that's not a fair criticism: Trump's not winning any popularity contests either. Here's Kevin Williamson, a correspondent with the conservative National Review magazine, writing in the wake of Ayers's comment:
“What, exactly, is the case for a 'purge' of Republicans who fail a Trump loyalty test? He’s unpopular, he has no substantive agenda, he has been on every conceivable side of issues ranging from abortion to health care to gun control, and his main interest is the service of his vanity.”
4. Prominent Republicans keep dissing Trump: Trump's war with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) only reinforces an inherent mistrust the president has of the GOP establishment. They can't repeal Obamacare, they're slow to the starting line on tax reform and they have the gall to call him unstable?
Why GOP leaders in Congress say that's not a fair criticism: Because a sizable number of them share Corker's concerns that the president, by himself, isn't fit to govern. They just don't say it publicly.