PHILADELPHIA — Republicans arrived here hoping to forge a game plan to reshape the health-care system and overhaul tax policy, finally envisioning that their legislation could be signed into law after years of confrontation with the Obama White House.
Instead, they found themselves in an all-too-common battle, trying to explain, defend and deflect the latest round of controversial statements by President Trump. Do they agree that as many as 5 million people voted illegally in November? Do they support a proposal to revive secret CIA prisons and possibly torture? What about a draft ban on resettling refugees?
Any hope that Trump would avoid distracting fights once he entered the Oval Office faded on the fifth full day of his presidency as several hundred GOP lawmakers loaded onto a rented Amtrak train to head north for a two-day retreat half a mile from Independence Hall.
Filing down an escalator and onto the platform at Washington’s Union Station, House and Senate Republicans smiled and largely avoided questions from the assembled members of the news media waiting to board their own trains. At one point, the words “stepping on his own message” could be plainly heard as a half-dozen Republicans filed past.
Formally known as the “Congress of Tomorrow,” the GOP retreat’s early steps felt a lot like the campaign of last year.
Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, two senior Republicans found themselves on the defensive over Trump’s latest comments regarding voter fraud that doesn’t appear to exist and an executive action reopening the contentious issue of secret sites for using enhanced interrogation tactics against terrorism suspects.
Of the first five questions to Sen. John Thune (S.D.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (Wash.), four involved reactions to Trump controversies. Thune called the issue of using torture “settled law” despite the draft executive order to review those tactics.
As hosts of the retreat, the chairs of the respective House and Senate conferences were most uncomfortable dealing with Trump’s call for a major probe into his assertion that upward of 5 million votes were illegally counted in November.
“I’ll wait . . . until I see more of what he’s proposing before I comment,” McMorris Rogers said.
“I haven’t seen any evidence to that effect,” Thune said of Trump’s assertion that massive voter fraud occurred Nov. 8. Thune reasserted his faith in the 2016 elections — which, he said, left a “decisive outcome” with Republicans firmly in control of Congress and the White House. He said Republicans must focus on legislating.
After another question about Trump’s call for a voter fraud investigation, Thune simply said, “We’ve moved on — the election’s over with.”
An aide then yelled out, “Last question.”
A similar refrain occurred throughout the 2016 campaign. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), beginning at last year’s congressional GOP retreat, crafted a conservative agenda under the banner “Better Way.” Republican candidates regularly found themselves being asked to respond to Trump’s comments, such as his promise to ban Muslims or his accusation that a federal judge from Indiana handling a lawsuit against him carried an unfair bias because he’s a Mexican American.
Ryan openly struggled with Trump, at first declining to endorse his candidacy after he locked up the nomination and then unequivocally backing him weeks before the Republican National Convention.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) proved remarkably adept at ignoring Trump’s controversies, comfortably tuning out the news media in his slow, steady walks through the Capitol corridors.
After Trump surprised even Republicans with his victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, GOP leaders and the president-elect had a two-month run of fairly solid relations. Vice President Pence, a former member of the House and close friend of Ryan’s, emerged as a key player in keeping Capitol Hill looped in on emerging legislative ideas and key personnel moves.
But earlier this month, Trump started giving media interviews that complicated the plans that Republicans were beginning to prepare — for instance, on whether to impose tariffs on companies that take jobs overseas and when to craft legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Trump declared that he was close to releasing a plan that would create “insurance for everybody.” That was well ahead of the actual Republican pace of unveiling proposals; it also sounded rhetorically close to former president Barack Obama’s goal of universal health care.
McConnell appeared to try to square things up with Trump at Friday’s inaugural luncheon. The Senate leader, who is famous for expressing himself only when he needs to, took another lawmaker’s seat so he could sit next to the president. For more than 15 minutes, McConnell did a vast majority of the talking, positioning himself in a such way that no one else could join the discussion.
This week’s trip to the City of Brotherly Love was meant to create harmony between the Senate, the House and the president, getting them on the same page on top policy priorities, the pacing of major legislative initiatives and the parliamentary procedures that will be needed to pass the bills.
Then, over the weekend, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, sparked a national debate with his declaration that the inauguration had been the most watched ever — “period.” Then, on Monday, Trump began a bipartisan reception for House and Senate leaders at the White House by reiterating his belief that between 3 million and 5 million people had voted illegally. That explained, he said, how Clinton defeated him in the popular vote.
Republicans have mostly ducked the issue since then, and they were hoping for a reprieve of Trump questions as they headed for Philadelphia. Instead, Trump created a third day of media firestorm early Wednesday, before the lawmakers had even loaded luggage onto their buses, by declaring a major investigation would occur on voter fraud.
A few hours later, Thune was asked whether the president’s remarks were distracting the effort to coordinate a unified message with his fellow Republicans.
“It’s a work in progress,” Thune said.