When President-elect Donald Trump started the week with a tweet storm calling for a 35 percent tariff on U.S. companies that ship jobs abroad, he took aim at decades of free-trade orthodoxy — and much of the Republican conference in Congress.
Trump’s soon-to-be governing partners on Capitol Hill preached harmony with the incoming president and tried to sidestep reporters’ questions about how Trump’s proposal mesh with their own long-standing philosophies.
They didn’t entirely succeed. For some, it was impossible to avoid addressing Trump’s views, or talking about their opposition to some of them, or laying bare a potential collision course between his agenda and theirs.
“When he’s right we should uphold him and support him,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). “If we don’t know, we ought to at least support him as much as we can. If he’s wrong, we ought to tell him he’s wrong. I’m not going to support something I know is wrong.”
It isn’t just trade. Deficit hawks, plus Republicans itching to dismantle Obamacare, reform entitlement programs or defund Planned Parenthood — all are trying to figure out how their policy positions will fare under President Trump.
What most would not say is how willing they will be to oppose Trump outright. In many instances, these Republicans have forced themselves into ideological and rhetorical contortions to accommodate the populist views of their party’s new standard bearer.
When Trump talks protectionist tariffs, Hill Republicans discuss “comprehensive tax reform.” When Trump says he will build a border wall, GOP lawmakers refer to “securing the border,” perhaps without a physical barrier. When Trump talks about getting tough with China, lawmakers play down any major policy shift.
The awkward dance was on display on Capitol Hill this week after Trump’s tweet storm about imposing tariffs, an idea that violates a core principle for most Republicans — that the free market is king.
The tweets sent usually chatty Republican lawmakers dashing through halls, slipping away behind closed doors and feigning phone calls in hallways to avoid questions from reporters.
“It’s not been something that in our office we’ve focused a great deal on,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who in the past has warned that protectionist tariffs would “start a trade war.”
“I’m not going to comment on tweets,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a former presidential candidate, as he rushed to wave off a throng of reporters on his way to catch a train in the basement of the Capitol. “Let’s wait until the inauguration, and we’ll work through all of those issues.”
“I’m not sure that he is specifically suggesting that we should have 35 percent tariffs as much as he is suggesting that the playing field is not level for the average American worker,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who voted last year for a major trade bill.
Among more than a dozen Republicans on Capitol Hill surveyed Monday, most dismissed Trump’s recent positions as temporary ideas that could change once he takes office.
“Listen, if you take every single thing that the president-elect has said on the campaign trail to heart and look for a policy to follow it, I think we’ll be hard-pressed to see some of those comments become policy, so I’m not as concerned about that as maybe others might be,” Scott said.
Many suggested that Trump’s more extreme positions, like the tariff, are part of a broader plan to cut taxes and eliminate regulations. Others think Congress will lead the way on policy and force Trump to conform to orthodox GOP values to get laws passed.
“I think a lot of it is going to be generated by Congress and not necessarily the administration,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “I think it is going to be a conversation and a two-way street.”
Even Vice President-elect Mike Pence pushed back — gently — on the tariff proposal. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Tuesday, Pence said: “What we don’t want to do is for companies to say, ‘It cost — it costs this much to manufacture it overseas and sell it in the United States and it costs this much in taxes and regulations and other burdens to manufacture here in the United States.’ We’ve got to put the American worker and American jobs first. But that’s a belief in the free market. “
Such comments are likely to hearten many Hill Republicans. They see Pence, a former House member, and Cabinet picks such as House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) — who has been nominated to be secretary of health and human services — as the chief drivers of Trump’s policy agenda.
“Who is he putting in positions of authority? Mike Pence, and he’s going to be working hand and glove with Paul Ryan,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “It just seems to me that he’s putting a traditional Republican administration together.”
At a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, Pence seemed to address Republican anxieties, vowing repeatedly that Trump would work closely with conservatives on the Hill. Pence cited the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, judicial appointments, free-market concerns over imposing tariffs and a military buildup as examples of issues on which Trump would partner with congressional Republicans.
Pence also suggested that it will be an active session. “I told my colleagues there to buckle up,” he said. “The vacation’s over.”
There also is the possibility of influence from the private interest groups that share House Republicans’ views on free trade — and have played a huge role in helping finance many of these Republicans’ campaigns.
“Thirty-five percent tariffs would be devastating to consumers and businesses,” David McIntosh, the president of Club for Growth, a free-market, small-government advocacy group. “The majority leader is right to caution against protectionism and to urge a robust debate on free markets and trade.”
McIntosh was referring to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who sparred with reporters over how he squared his own free-market principles with Trump’s views. He was hammered with questions about the tariff idea and whether it was permissible to offer companies tax breaks and incentives to avoid moving jobs overseas.
Under pressure from Trump, Carrier announced last month that it would refrain from moving hundreds of Indianapolis manufacturing jobs to Mexico in return for a package of state tax incentives — the sort of deal many conservatives have derided as “crony capitalism.”
Finally, McCarthy threw his hands up, exasperated: “Take a deep breath. He’s not sworn in yet.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), meanwhile, at a news conference Tuesday, defended Trump’s tariff idea — by changing the subject. “It’s consistent with our goal to make American businesses and American products more competitive in a global economy,” Ryan said, “and we believe the best way to achieve that goal is through comprehensive tax reform.”
Ryan also, again, promoted his “Better Way” policy agenda as a blueprint for upcoming legislation. The blueprint hews to conservative principles and largely steers clear of Trump’s campaign agenda, but it tackles some subjects such as entitlement reform, an issue on which Trump has been cautious.
“The idea was, if we actually won the election by campaigning on solutions and ideas, we would be ready to govern,” Ryan said. “And here we are. We are ready to hit the ground running.”
Trump will rely on Congress to be able to check off major parts of his domestic agenda, including repealing the ACA and remaking immigration laws. One potential advantage is the selection of congressional Republicans for key administration posts.
Reps. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) — members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus — met Monday with Trump in New York.
Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot, has been mentioned for NASA administrator. Mulvaney is a contender to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Mulvaney, in particular, could play a crucial role if tapped as budget director, lending fiscally conservative credibility to Trump’s spending plans.
He has sharply criticized Republican leaders for failing to adhere to strict budget caps, including in defense spending. Trump has said he favors increased military spending, but tapping Mulvaney could help smooth over intraparty clashes between House leaders and the hard right.
“Getting two or three Freedom Caucus members in the administration can’t help but smooth the way for a good transition and a very productive first 100 days,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who was elected Monday as the group’s chairman for the upcoming Congress.
Congressional Republicans also will have the chance to test their ability to guide Trump’s thinking early next year when they begin work on tax reform. House Republicans have worked for months on elements of a tax code overhaul that they hope will have wide support among Republicans, but it is unclear where Trump will stand on critical issues such as how to tax the money that companies earn abroad.
Tax writers have been cautiously optimistic that Trump will see their reform blueprint as a logical starting point for negotiations.
“We have a running start on these things,” said Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.), one of the top tax writers in the House. “But, obviously, the X factor is the Trump administration. . . . I think Donald Trump has redefined what is possible.”
One area where Trump stands to have a freer hand — and more agreement with congressional Republicans — is in his foreign-policy agenda. Although Trump caused an uproar Friday when he upended diplomatic tradition with China by speaking to Taiwan’s president, many Republicans were happy to see him take a harder line against China.
Corker, who is under consideration to be Trump’s secretary of state, played down the significance of the call.
“World leaders have realized how accessible he is — he got a call, he took it,” Corker said. “I think probably a lot more is being read into it than is the case.”
Corker declined to say whether he would have advised Trump to accept the call: “He operates in a very different way than most people who assume the office, and that’s why he was so successful in his race. And my guess is there will be much in the way of protocol that’s very different with his presence.”