WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s first two whirlwind weeks in office have left congressional Republicans gasping over questions of crowd size, “alternative facts,” even baseless claims about massive voter fraud ― and that was really just the initial few days. But Trump’s antics have also handed members a gift: distraction.
“There is some merit to the argument that would suggest that much of the focus is on what President Trump is doing and not as much on what Congress is doing,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told The Huffington Post. “So it allows for votes to be taken in the House that receive little attention while everybody’s focused on the bigger agenda items.”
Traditional media score-keeping looks at whether politicians are staying on message. But Trump ripped up that scorecard a year and a half ago. Now, as backlash against the GOP agenda grows, Republicans in Congress are learning how useful it can be to have a lightning rod as president.
“He’s eased it somewhat, yeah. I mean, he’s taking the bulk of it,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who had just been complaining about Democratic protesters flooding lawmakers’ offices.
Republicans know they aren’t going to repeal the Affordable Care Act without criticism.
“No matter what we do on Obamacare, it’s going to be a lot of battling because Democrats love the federal government more than anything else,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
It’d be easier for detractors to focus on one issue if there weren’t 20 issues happening simultaneously. Rep. Scott Perry
Republicans do think, however, that all the different Trump flash points prevent Democrats from targeting just a single item.
“It’d be easier for detractors to focus on one issue if there weren’t 20 issues happening simultaneously,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said.
“But I don’t think he sits up at night, ‘Now they’re working on that, and I want to, you know, help them shield the blow from the fact that they haven’t decided on and coalesced around one of the three, four, half-a-dozen [Obamacare replacement] plans, so I’m going to do this,’” Perry said of Trump. “I think he’s just doing what he’s doing.”
While Perry didn’t buy the idea that Trump was creating all the controversy intentionally, other Republicans weren’t totally sure that the president wasn’t playing some game of 11-dimensional chess.
“That’s the question,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said. “I think the jury’s still out.”
Labrador laid out the theory that Trump was purposely diverting attention away from Congress. “So then you can do the things that need to be done because he’s distracting on those things,” the congressman said.
Ultimately, however, he considered Trump’s unpredictable conduct “a wash.”
“Because at some point he’s taking away from his own effectiveness,” Labrador said, specifically bringing up Trump’s decision to attack a “so-called” federal judge rather than make “a cogent argument against the judge’s decision.”
Labrador reported that two Democrats had asked him if Trump’s bizarre behavior was intentional. “Because they think their leadership is falling for it,” he said.
The president is moving so fast that it’s hard for you guys to keep up sometimes. Rep. Liz Cheney
Trump certainly has set Democrats ― and the media ― a challenge in responding to his every outrage. Before Democrats can meet to discuss their talking points and hold a press conference to decry the latest abuse, Trump is on to the next one. “The president is moving so fast that it’s hard for you guys to keep up sometimes, frankly,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told reporters during a recent GOP retreat.
A common sentiment from armchair analysts on Twitter is that everyone is missing the real story when they focus on things like Trump’s travel ban. (Don’t you get it? Steve Bannon is now on the National Security Council!)
But an entirely more plausible explanation is that Trump is most often not trying to distract from his distractions, that there is no master plan behind most of the president’s actions and that he is governing from public relations crisis to public relations crisis ― with a devoted band of followers who think everything he says and does is making America great again.
It’s just that, for Republicans in Congress, the distractions aren’t all good.
“Sometimes helpful, sometimes hurtful,” was how Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) summed them up.
“Some of his tweets are an asset, and some, you know, I recommend he not do,” Grothman continued.
Trump’s frenetic White House is generating plenty of headlines that the administration can’t be pleased with. (Did Kellyanne Conway really try to flub the “Bowling Green massacre” or set off the “alternative facts” narrative?)
But Trump also understands that creating news can be helpful at times. The White House’s decision to move up the announcement of its Supreme Court pick seemed motivated by a desire to end coverage on the travel ban.
I’d rather not be revisiting and rehashing who won the election. Rep. Charlie Dent
The question is still whether the president has been carrying water for Congress.
There’s no real evidence that Trump was doing that ― or, at least, that he was trying to do that. In fact, some Republicans seemed to desire a better messaging relationship with the White House.
“I just hope in the days ahead we can coordinate a little more closely,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told HuffPost.
It’s the lack of coordination ― the possibility that Trump could say or do anything ― that has some Republicans worried.
“I’m a little concerned about it,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) told reporters recently.
For Dent, the unpredictable tweets and outbursts really are distracting. “I’d rather not be revisiting and rehashing who won the election,” he said.
When Dent was asked about the prospect of learning administration policy via a Twitter alert, he said some days those Twitter clarifications can be helpful and some days they’re not.
“I’ll tell you where it was helpful,” he said. “A few weeks ago we were talking repeal and delay on Obamacare and then replacing later ― or hoping to replace later ― and then the president tweeted out that there should be a repeal and replace simultaneously. That was helpful.”
But Dent would like to see Trump end the erratic behavior. “We have to get onto the serious business of governing,” he said. “These other issues are just distractions ― the crowd size and whatever the other issues are, you know, the voter fraud.”
Or maybe not.
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.