President-elect Donald Trump is signaling a cease-fire in his battle with the Republican leadership in Congress, which he repeatedly skewered during his election-season attacks on the Washington establishment.
Trump has, by all accounts, patched up his once-turbulent relationship with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). To fill top jobs in his administration, Trump has chosen five sitting lawmakers, as well as the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). And he has passed up opportunities to meddle in congressional business in ways that might have pleased his populist base but frustrated Republican leaders.
The detente in Trump’s war on GOP leaders reflects the unifying power of victory, the moderating influence of Vice President-elect Mike Pence and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and, most of all, a shared desire to make good on years of Republican campaign promises.
“He has made it clear he does not want to be an executive-order president, like Obama,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who was one of the first lawmakers to openly back Trump and now serves on the transition’s executive committee. “He wants to be a legislative president, who gets legislation on his desk to sign into law.”
Top leaders and their staffs have developed a relationship with Trump’s more establishment-minded aides: Priebus and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who will serve as a White House counselor. Ryan has a particularly strong bond with Pence, forged during their 12 years together in the House.
But other Trump aides are nurturing different channels of communication that could exacerbate GOP tensions. Hard-line House conservatives appear to have a direct line to Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior political aide David Bossie — both of whom spent years in the conservative media railing against the GOP establishment.
Other Republicans — including a group of early Trump backers from New York and Pennsylvania — are closer to Trump family members, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is playing a central transition role and could join the White House officially.
Trump is in near-daily contact with Ryan and McConnell, mainly to solicit input on potential appointees, while high-level transition staffers hash out a legislative blueprint for 2017 with senior congressional aides — one that would repeal the Affordable Care Act, rewrite the federal tax code and rebuild domestic infrastructure.
But the pre-inauguration choreography can extend only so far. Big questions remain about Trump’s personal approach to Congress: Will he be a bipartisan schmoozer and dealmaker? Or will he sit back as Republicans power through a long-deferred wish list?
Trump has yet to commit to attending the yearly House Republican policy retreat scheduled for late January in Philadelphia — a traditional early stop for a new president. A Trump spokesman declined to comment for this article.
But it is clear that the members of Trump’s inner circle often are not on the same page, which could spell trouble for his legislative agenda.
For instance, members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus claimed to have Trump’s backing when they defied Ryan and launched an early-December bid to impeach Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen.
Priebus intervened in an attempt to halt a floor vote, as reported by Politico, but conservatives forced one anyway. The Freedom Caucus was emboldened — and encouraged behind the scenes — by Bannon, whose former website, Breitbart News, wrote favorably about it, and by Bossie, who supported the impeachment push as president of Citizens United. Impeachment was effectively buried in the end, handing GOP leaders the win.
Even as Trump has moved closer to the Republican leadership, not all key decisions are going its way. A top GOP leader got an up-close lesson on the competing whims of Trump insiders.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the House Republican Conference chairwoman, was encouraged to seek a Cabinet position by Pence, and on Dec. 9, a Friday, several media organizations reported that Trump had chosen her as interior secretary.
But McMorris Rodgers was not offered the job ahead of a planned visit to Trump Tower the following Monday.
On her way up to Trump’s 26th-floor office, according to a person familiar with the visit, her elevator stopped and she was joined by Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. The sons then entered their father’s office ahead of McMorris Rodgers before she was ushered in.
After small talk about that weekend’s Army-Navy football game, the person said, Trump opened a folder and questioned McMorris Rodgers on statements she had made criticizing Trump during the campaign. The meeting ended within minutes.
The next day, Trump announced he had selected Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a former Navy SEAL who got to know Donald Trump Jr. through hunting and fishing circles.
Trump’s eschewing of McMorris Rodgers and choice of Zinke was a blow to GOP leaders, especially McConnell, who saw Zinke as Republicans’ best chance to unseat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in 2018.
Rep. Tom Cole, a veteran House Republican, said the competing factions inside Trump’s inner circle could help him manage a fractious Congress. Different wings of the party, he said, could interact with the White House through different advisers and feel comfortable that their views were being heard by Trump.
“There can be creative chaos sometimes in administrations,” said Cole (Okla.). “This is probably not unlike the way he runs a lot of businesses. . . . He probably seems to like that, likes a little tension in the Cabinet or disagreements with his advisers, because it clarifies the issues in front of him and then he makes the decision.”
Stylistically, Trump seems to be charting a different course toward lawmakers than President Obama, who was criticized for his seemingly aloof personal relations with them. Trump is embracing a more hands-on approach — one that has played out in rapid-fire phone calls, text messages and highly publicized visits to Trump Tower.
“I probably talked to him as much since he’s become president-elect as I did [to Obama] in the entire eight years,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, a moderate West Virginia Democrat who was in contention to be energy secretary.
Manchin said he left a Trump Tower visit earlier this month with Trump’s direct phone number and budding relationships with Priebus and Bannon, both of whom Manchin praised.
“I liked him,” Manchin said of Bannon, a bete noire to most Democrats. “He’s no bull---, straightforward, direct. . . . You might not agree, but at least you know where he’s coming from.” Priebus, he said, “wants to do some things to move things forward.”
Those relationships are being built, several lawmakers pointed out, even before Trump takes office and has the use of some of the most powerful tools of persuasion.
“Say what you want about the trappings of the White House and Air Force One and those kinds of things, but some presidents have used that stuff very effectively,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), another early Trump backer, now advising the transition on energy issues. “Donald Trump, with his background in hospitality, as a host, owning facilities, being in the business, he’s the kind of guy who can maximize the tools of relationship probably as well as anybody could.”
Cole said Trump’s decision-making style suggests Congress will not be kept at arm’s length.
“A lot of it seems to be in interactive situations with individuals, which, of course, is what congressmen want to do: They want to talk about what they know and what they do,” Cole said. “My guess is the Trump White House is going to be an interesting White House to visit. You’re going to be invited down a lot more.”
Senior Capitol Hill staffers say they are waiting for Trump to weigh in on key questions before committing to strategies on health care, infrastructure and taxes. But even among Trump’s strongest congressional supporters, there are differing views on how involved Trump ultimately will get in dictating legislation.
“I think we know he’s not going to get himself wrapped around the axles,” Cramer said. “As long as we’re delivering the product that gets to his goals, I think that he would defer the details to us.”
Collins, on the other hand, said Ryan and McConnell understand that the GOP is Trump’s party now and that he will ultimately call the shots.
“There’s been no kickback whatsoever that would suggest, ‘We’re Congress. You’re the president. We’re going to do what we’re going to do,’ ” Collins said. “It’s just the opposite. It’s, ‘Yes, Mr. President. What do you want us to do first? How would you like us to proceed? Thank you very much.’ ”