It’s a simple question, but for Republicans in Congress, it’s not an easy one.
Do you trust President Trump’s judgment on major decisions?
“I’m not answering questions like that,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) after hopping off an underground tram shuttling him from the Capitol to his Senate office building. “That’s ah … ” he trailed off as he walked toward an elevator.
Four seconds later, the easygoing Arizonan picked back up: “The president is overseas. I don’t think we’re allowed to ask any questions while the president’s overseas.”
Flake was one of a dozen Republicans from across the ideological spectrum asked this week to reflect on Trump’s judgment. Most of them weren’t eager to address the subject head-on. They diverted and demurred. They paused contemplatively before answering. Some grew visibly uncomfortable. Others declared their conviction in Trump — but then qualified their words or expressed confidence in the people around him. Only one of those interviewed — Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) — offered an unqualified yes regarding Trump himself.
This wavering confidence, and perhaps loyalty, comes after a torrent of controversial decisions by the president and explosive revelations regarding the ongoing investigations into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russia. It also comes amid signs that members of Trump’s own administration don’t fully trust the president’s decisions.
When Trump revealed highly classified information to two Russian officials in the Oval Office earlier this month, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency, according to a Washington Post report earlier this month.
And when Trump asked the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election, both refused — deeming the appeal inappropriate, according to another Post report this week.
GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, have labored to project at least some semblance of unity with the White House over the first four months of Trump’s presidency, in hopes of salvaging their legislative agenda.
But now, amid a Russian meddling probe that has reached a current White House official and questions about whether Trump tried to stifle that investigation, that unity appears to be faltering.
“I thought the president gave a great speech in Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, deflecting a direct question about the president’s judgment. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman wasn’t willing to comment more broadly.
“Those kind of questions are not … ” he said, going silent for five seconds before concluding that he was facing a “gotcha” question.
The shift in the way Republicans talk about Trump has been incremental. They have mostly embraced the Justice Department’s appointment of a special prosecutor to take over the Russia investigation, even though many spent weeks saying it wasn’t necessary.
Many are still erring on the side of trying to give Trump the benefit of the doubt — and are trying to move past his controversies. But with multiple investigations into his associates and new revelations popping up faster than most lawmakers can keep up, some privately worry about how long they can sustain that posture.
One popular approach: List some facts about whether Trump can do what he is doing, rather than opine on whether he should do what he is doing.
After chewing over the question of whether he trusted Trump’s judgment on big domestic and national security decisions as he descended an escalator, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used this strategy.
“He has the responsibility and so therefore, ah, I respect the result of the election. I respect the constitutional authority that he has.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) took a similar approach in a conversation with reporters a few steps from the Senate chamber.
“Do you trust the president’s judgment right now on big national security decisions, big domestic policy decisions, in light of all of these revelations?” one asked.
“Well, he’s president of the United States,” the second-ranking Republican replied. “He won the election and he’s entitled to make those decisions. Ah, we need to try to work with him — and I am — to try to help him be successful.”
Does Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) trust Trump’s judgment? Not clear. But like Cornyn, he also confirmed that Trump is indeed the commander in chief.
“He is the president,” Lankford said. “And so, he makes decisions and that’s the way the American people do it.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the whether the president’s reputation with lawmakers is deteriorating.
For some Republicans, the preferred way to discuss Trump is to talk about the people around him, rather than the president himself.
“Well, he’s going to have a lot of good advice over there,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), before naming some of his top national security advisers.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who ran against Trump and was disparagingly dubbed “Little Marco” by the real estate developer during the campaign, said the president has a “really good team of people around.”
The Floridian said he does trust Trump’s judgment. Rubio said he was “impressed” with the decision that Trump and his team made to launch a military strike in Syria.
But as Rubio moved toward a Capitol subway tram, he turned back over his shoulder and added: “I don’t think national security is the issue.”
“Well, I think just all of these things that are going on in the press and so forth, I think are slowing down part of their agenda,” he replied. “But hopefully, we can overcome that.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also said she trusts Trump’s judgment. And she also explained her position by crediting the advisers he has assembled.
“I think President Trump has a good team around him. And I have no reason not to trust his national security decisions,” she said.
Some Republicans remain staunch defenders of the president — particularly in the House, where many GOP members come from safe conservative districts.
“I do trust the president on national security,” Cole said without hesitation. He added that Trump is having a “brilliant” international trip.
Others answer the question by comparing Trump to former president Barack Obama.
“I trust him much more than I did the previous president,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who praised some of Trump’s foreign-policy decisions.
The question led some GOP lawmakers to fall back on familiar talking points: He’s different. His campaign was different. His presidency is different.
But it’s starting to sound more like a disavowal and less like a defense.
“Is he an unconventional politician? Yes, he is. That’s why people chose him. They didn’t want traditional politicians to get elected,” said Cornyn, the Senate Republican whip.
He added: “So, they got what they voted for.”