In the aftermath of the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Republican lawmakers and leaders face the most unpalatable set of choices yet in their relationship with President Trump. They are caught between disgust over his failure to unequivocally condemn neo-Nazism, a desire to advance a conservative agenda and fears of rupturing the Trump-GOP coalition ahead of the 2018 elections.
Recent condemnations of the president by Republican lawmakers have been harsher, more frequent and sometimes more personal than in previous moments when Trump went beyond what is considered acceptable behavior. Many GOP leaders are now personally wrestling with the trade-offs of making a cleaner separation with the president, while finding no good options.
To some in the party, the hesitancy to act more boldly in response to Trump’s handling of the Charlottesville violence — specifically his angry news conference Tuesday — falls short of what they believe this moment demands.
“At what point does a principled party stand up for its principles?” Tom Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania and homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush, asked in a midweek interview.
Ridge, a longtime critic of the president, added: “You can’t be afraid of losing an election because you stood up for what was right. A party of principle requires leadership. But at this time, we’re kind of rudderless. We need a chorus [of opposition] and we didn’t get it. . . . And frankly, if we did that, I think most Americans would applaud.”
What Ridge is calling for publicly is what some Republicans are asking themselves privately, which is whether a more direct break with the president is either advisable or possible. There are indications of private conversations underway within Republican circles about the president’s behavior and whether, after seven months in office and a new chief of staff who many GOP officials hoped would temper the president’s behavior, there will ever be a change. Many are concluding that the answer is no. The next question is what to do.
It’s clear that, as of now, many Republicans — lawmakers, leaders and strategists — have reached a pair of uncomfortable conclusions. First, whatever they and a majority of the public believe about the repugnancy of the president’s comments, they believe Trump was duly elected as president on the Republican ticket and that he retains a deeply loyal following within the party. They are reluctant to go against that Trump base.
Second, however personally upset they are by Trump’s remarks, many lawmakers believe they must maintain a working relationship with the president if they are to accomplish their legislative goals — including tax reform and even a health-care overhaul. So far, they have little to show for their work this year and see progress on that agenda as crucial to keeping grass-roots conservatives and Trump loyalists energized ahead of the 2018 elections.
Interviews with Republicans around the country since Charlottesville highlight the dilemma elected officials face. Few were willing to talk about what comes next, even anonymously, and most elected officials and party leaders contacted declined requests for interviews altogether.
Many of these leaders know that in their states, Trump retains considerable support from Republican voters. Among those attending the Iowa State Fair in the past week — a place where Trump made waves two years ago when he landed in his personal helicopter at the fairgrounds — there appeared to be no significant dampening of support among his followers.
A large banner reading, “Stand With Trump” hung behind the Iowa Republican Party’s booth inside the Varied Industries Building. By Wednesday afternoon, it was covered in signatures, with few spots left for others to add their names. Every few minutes, people would stop by to take photos with a cardboard cutout of the president.
Althea Cole, a member of the state GOP, worked the booth during the week, talking to people who stopped by. “Iowans like Trump. Of course, we had the occasional person come up to us and say, ‘How could you?’ ” she said Friday.
Notably, Cole said that several people stopped by the GOP booth to inquire about the state’s two U.S. senators, Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst. “They want Iowa’s two senators, they want Iowa’s federal representatives, to be behind Trump 100 percent,” she said.
In another Midwestern state, a group of golfers watched Trump’s Tuesday news conference from the clubhouse of their country club — and vocally expressed their support for him and agreed with his characterization that both sides bore responsibility for the violence that took place in Charlottesville.
A GOP strategist working campaigns in red and purple states said that while support for Trump generally declined slightly since Charlottesville, support rose among his base, after a decline last month because of the failure on health care and revelations about the Russia investigation. This strategist said many Trump supporters applaud the president’s continuing desire to shake up Washington, favor his economic priorities and admire his willingness to speak his mind.
But he said Trump has nonetheless created a longer-term risk. “What he’s doing that’s harmful is he’s removing people from the persuadable audience, and that’s dangerous,” he said. “He’s taken an event where he could have added 5 percent of people to the persuadable universe and [instead] he’s dumped out 10 percent of them.”
For many Republicans, this has become a look-in-the-mirror moment, a time for taking stock of their own actions, perhaps equal to or even beyond that which took place in the days after the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” video in October. This time, the personal criticisms of the president started more slowly but after Tuesday built to a crescendo as the week unfolded.
Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was one of the first to state his displeasure after Trump’s Saturday statement, which made no mention of neo-Nazis or white supremacists. He implored the president to “call evil by its name.” Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who faces reelection next year and who dueled with Trump for the 2016 presidential nomination, was similarly caustic in calling out white supremacists.
On Monday, Trump delivered what many Republicans had hoped to hear Saturday. Reading from a script, he criticized “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear.” Had he stopped there, he might have avoided what was to follow. But the next afternoon, during an angry news conference at Trump Tower, the president once again sought to blame “both sides” and defended the neo-Nazi marchers.
That evening, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the march organizers were “100 percent to blame,” adding, “Mr. President, you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame.” Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio), accused the president of deflecting attention from the killing of Heather Heyer “by a bigoted follower of the white supremacist movement.” Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, another 2016 primary rival, tweeted that this was a time for moral clarity. “I urge @POTUS to unite the country, not parse the assignment of blame.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., that the president’s moral authority has been complicated by his response to Charlottesville. Saying Trump had tried to draw “moral equivalency” between the white supremacists and the counterdemonstrators, he told the paper, “I think you are either missing four centuries of history in this nation or you are trying to make something what it’s not.”
On Thursday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, took the criticism another step by questioning the president’s “stability” and “competence.” He said that Trump has not shown that he understands “the character of this nation” and that without that understanding, “Our nation is going to go through great peril.”
Then, on Friday, Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, posted a lengthy statement on his Facebook page calling on Trump to undertake “remedial action in the extreme” to atone for remarks that he said, “caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.” Romney said Trump should address the American people, acknowledge that he was wrong and apologize.
Four magazines — the New Yorker, Time, the Economist and Der Spiegel — rushed out covers that showed imagery of Trump and some version of a Klansman’s hood or a Nazi salute. The Economist declared that Trump had shown himself to be “politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for the office.”
The Spectator, a conservative British magazine, echoed part of that sentiment but with a caveat that highlighted the box in which Republican officials find themselves. “Yet again, Trump has demonstrated the extent to which he is unsuited to be president,” the magazine wrote in an editorial. “But yet again we can also see the forces at work that led him to power.”
Defenders of the president believe Trump’s base will only intensify its anger toward the president’s critics. Saul Anuzis, the former Republican chair in Michigan, said Trump had been goaded by the media into the statements he made Tuesday. “I believe there are media folks trying to put him in a position to create forced errors — and he does,” he said.
He added, “I think it’s an uncomfortable situation [for the party] that unfortunately is not easily walked back because there are a whole lot of people trying to stir it up.” Saying he did not believe Trump was a racist or neo-Nazi sympathizer, he said, “We’ve got a communications issue rather than a political problem [that] is going to be a challenge throughout his presidency.”
One strategist said he had just seen the numbers from a survey in a battleground state and that the president’s approval among GOP primary voters stood at a still-impressive 85 percent. For elected officials, political survival remains paramount, and they are reluctant to get crosswise with that base.
“Elected officeholders have to speak to everyone in their constituency,” said the strategist, who, like many, declined to speak on the record so as to offer a candid assessment. “They’re very concerned about the people who will vote for him next time and right now they still [like him].”
Another strategist said that, despite the concerns about the president, there are any number of Republicans who consider the party to be in good shape. “They say the Republican Party’s never been stronger,” he said. “ ‘We have more governors, we have more state legislators, fundraising is great. What are you complaining about?’ ”
He added that Republican elected officials “either have to feel punished or be punished” before they will break significantly with the president. “There has to be some sense that there is a price to be paid for this,” he said.
A party activist noted that by many traditional metrics, Republicans are strong. “Then there’s the worst of times,” he said. “What happened in Charlottesville . . . reinforces our biggest problem as a party, which is one word, the perception of intolerance. . . . Whether true or not doesn’t matter. This reinforced that in a big way.”
The internal concerns go well beyond that, however. Party leaders and elected officials more closely tied to the establishment wing of the GOP see a succession of discouraging actions by the president, from his public criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to the firing of former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff and especially his attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“What does the party do if it appears as though the president doesn’t support the leadership in the party?” said a Republican activist, who would not agree to be identified. “How does the party run if the person who supposedly runs the party doesn’t embrace the party? That is a big question. That is a conversation that is out there right now.”
The answer is there is no obvious one, as many Republicans underscored in interviews. Some lawmakers anticipate that individual Republicans will maintain greater distance from the president in public settings and in their rhetoric while focusing more intently on a legislative agenda that remains largely unfulfilled. In essence, that would mean they would begin to chart the party’s course without particular regard for Trump’s priorities.
Trump has made that easier for congressional Republicans with his attacks on McConnell, which deeply offended McConnell’s Senate colleagues. His more recent attacks on Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and earlier ones aimed at Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) only add to the impetus to operate more independently.
A Republican strategist who is directly engaged in 2018 politics said progress on the GOP agenda, particularly tax cuts, could help to diminish some of the anguish that has been on display this past week. “Cutting middle-class taxes and improving the economy?” the strategist said. “A lot of people will forgive a lot of sins if that happens.”
But he conceded that the week’s events could complicate that path to success. “I would be very hesitant to say [Charlottesville] has real meaning six months from now,” he added. “I think where it hurts the most, it’s just another thing that makes it harder to get the middle-class tax cut done.”
One alternative to charting their own course would be for Republicans collectively to issue a sharper rebuke of the president. But that seems challenging, even in the assessment of Republican detractors of the president.
“What does it mean to ‘break’ with the president?” asked William Kristol, editor at large of the conservative Weekly Standard and one of Trump’s most vocal critics. “It’s a pretty big move in effect to go into opposition to a president of your own party. It’s a very unnatural mode for an elected congressman or senator.”
Another GOP strategist put it bluntly: “I’m not trying to justify what he said, but there’s the practical issue. What you’re asking is, do Republicans break with him fundamentally? He’s the president. What are you going to do, impeach for this?”
Speaking with reporters Friday morning, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) described the position in which Republican lawmakers find themselves. “I have a responsibility to do what I do, he has a responsibility to do what he does, and I don’t have the constitutional position to be able to challenge him,” he said. “We’re both in the same party, and so I can push on people within my own party, which I think is entirely appropriate, but the president’s the president, and he can make his own statements.”
Ed O’Keefe, Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.