“Most of us here would rather not be political commentators on the president’s tweets,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said in response Tuesday. And yet they get asked about it on a near-weekly (sometimes daily) basis.
On Tuesday, numerous GOP senators pulled out well-worn reasons to dodge talking about the tweet: Mostly, that they haven’t seen it.
“I haven’t read the damn thing,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told The Post’s Mike DeBonis, who offered to show it to him. Roberts replied: “I’d just assume not.”
“I didn’t see it,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told CNN’s Manu Raju. “You’re telling me about it. I don’t read Twitter. I only write on it.”
By now, reporters know to have the tweet text ready to read back to the GOP senators. But that still didn’t get a response from many.
“I don’t think Donald Trump’s going to change his behavior,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), in the photo above, said after reading the tweet passed to him by the New York Times’s Emily Cochrane.
It’s been a can’t-win situation for congressional Republicans from the start: Criticize the president’s latest controversial words and risk his wrath and the wrath of his base, or risk public ridicule for not speaking out against it. Those stakes have become much higher now that the national conversation and Trump’s controversial tweets have centered on police brutality and racism.
Since he became president, Trump has also made Republican lawmakers swallow policies that have been anathema to their long-held principles, like tariffs over free trade, or pushed them toward policies they had been trying to move away from, like tough immigration laws.
The pressure has built to a potentially unmanageable degree among some senators. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) allowed last week that she’s “struggling” on how she can support the president, especially after a respected military general and Trump’s former defense secretary alleged that the president is a threat to the nation because of Trump saying he would deploy active military troops in U.S. cities to restore law and order.
On top of all that, Trump’s poll numbers are sinking and there’s a real concern among Republicans he could take some vulnerable GOP Senate members — and their majority — down with them.
But even with all that, to ditch Trump now would be a futile effort for most Senate Republicans. Who are they going to win over?
Probably not any significant number of Democratic-leaning voters to make it worth their while. To Trump’s critics, Senate Republicans have had dozens of chances to speak out more forcefully against the president and haven’t done so.
An unnamed Republican senator who is publicly supporting Trump told the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin that he might prefer Trump losing reelection if Republicans could keep their Senate majority. But the two are more linked than ever in a hyperpartisan environment, stoked by Trump’s constant “you’re with us or against us” mentality.
The relatively small pool of voters who might be inclined to vote for former vice president Joe Biden and a Senate Republican have by now been on the receiving end of plenty of messaging that a vote for a Senate Republican is a vote for Trump. Democratic leaders in Congress have accused Senate Republicans of enabling Trump on everything from separating families at the border to driving racial animus in America to dismantling independent oversight into his administration. The party has spent tens of millions to try to unseat three to four Republicans in November and regain control of the Senate. Any anti-Trump sentiment that Senate Republicans express would probably be too little too late to change those dynamics in a significant way.
Then there’s Trump’s stalwart base, which hasn’t budged over the years and the controversies. During Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate at the start of this year, the evidence Democrats presented was enough to persuade one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, to vote to remove Trump from office. But it was not enough for Trump’s supporters to even consider such a thing. The Post’s Griffe Witte traveled to Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is up for reelection, and Colorado, where Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) is vulnerable, and found a Republican base adamant that their senators stand behind Trump during impeachment.
In 2016, Republican Kelly Ayotte was in a tight Senate reelection race in New Hampshire when she said she wouldn’t support Trump. She lost that race.
There is a vocal group of Republicans who oppose Trump where these senators could find a home. The marquee group is led by George Conway, the husband of Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. But it would be a lonely one: The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC, doesn’t have the support of sitting GOP lawmakers. All of the Republican senators who publicly criticized Trump in the first half of his presidency were retiring.
It seems there is no choice for Senate Republicans but to stick with the home they have under Trump, as frustrating as it is for them, and hope for the best: that somehow they can keep the presidency and control of the Senate.