WASHINGTON ― Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) learned about Michael Flynn’s resignation like nearly everybody else on Capitol Hill: through news reports that broke late Monday night.
Heading to work Tuesday morning, the veteran lawmaker didn’t get any guidance from the White House on how to talk about the abrupt departure of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, who’s been mired in controversy for weeks. So, he just treated the day like any other, heading into his usual GOP conference meeting ― and emerging to find reporters eager to ask about the fallout over Flynn.
Cole responded as other Republicans did throughout the day: Trump was right to get rid of Flynn. But on the broader issue of the White House keeping fellow GOP lawmakers in the loop in moments of crisis ― of which there have been plenty ― Cole acknowledged that work needs to be done. Yes, he conceded, the president and his team are just three weeks in and deserve some slack. But the self-inflicted wounds, like deciding it was smart to push Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on national television, are starting to pile up.
“Stop creating things that get in the way of the good news. [Flynn] is a pretty good example,” Cole told The Huffington Post. “The stakes are so much bigger than issues like that. I mean, Nordstrom? Really?”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of Trump’s toughest critics, said he can’t believe the “dysfunction” in White House communications. A prime example of that, he said, is the fact that Vice President Mike Pence only learned about Flynn’s misleading statements to him ― he told Pence he had never discussed sanctions with the Russians ― after reading about it in The Washington Post.
“Who’s making the decisions in the White House?” McCain asked reporters Wednesday. “Is it the 31-year old? Is it Mr. [Steve] Bannon? Is it the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? I don’t know.”
Every White House finds Hill relations to be tricky. It’s a byproduct of bifurcated government, where 535 lawmakers have different opinions about legislation and governance than the one person at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. What sets the Trump administration apart from its predecessors is not that Hill relations are bad; it’s that they’re entirely scattershot. For some Republicans, the relationship has been wonderful.
“They’ve been great to me,” raved Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in an interview last week. “I’ve been down there and met with the president. Know them all … I get a big kick of people who think they should be up and running in every sense of the word right now.”
But most GOP lawmakers aren’t getting invites to the White House. One Republican senator, who requested anonymity, said the president keeps exacerbating his missteps by not clueing lawmakers in to what is going on.
“Yes,” this senator said, flatly, when asked if the Flynn controversy makes it harder to keep defending the president’s actions.
It’s clear that the limited goodwill that Trump enjoyed among Hill Republicans following his election is beginning to dissipate. Last month, he stunned lawmakers in both parties when, with no notice, he signed a sweeping and hastily drafted executive order suspending all refugee resettlement and banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. It’s tied up in court now, but some senators took note that this may be how Trump plans to lead ― and that his style may be counterproductive to collaboration.
“It was chaotic,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last week of the rollout of that executive order.
Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he learned about the president’s action from news reports. The White House has been more accessible since then, he said. But when asked if Trump’s team soured relations with the Hill over that episode, he offered a diplomatic response: “They probably learned a great deal over the last several days.”
Beyond poorly executed executive orders, Trump has insulted the leaders of some of the nation’s strongest allies, like Mexico and Australia ― the latter of which drove McCain to step in to smooth out relations.
The president has also left GOP senators to fend for themselves as they go to bat for his cabinet nominees, some of whom have faced blistering criticism over their lack of qualifications or their unethical and possibly illegal past activities.
Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, drew such strong public condemnation that the Capitol switchboard was flooded with calls ahead of her vote. GOP senators like Pat Toomey (Pa.) felt the wrath of constituents furious about his planned vote for her, to the point where his offices around the state got so many calls that people were getting busy signals or being diverted to a full voicemail inbox.
In the end, DeVos was confirmed, but even some Republicans voted against her, and the vote was so tight that Vice President Mike Pence had to come in and break a tie. That’s never happened with a cabinet nominee, and it wasn’t a great moment for Trump.
It’s not looking good for some of his cabinet picks in the pipeline, either: Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, Andy Puzder, hasn’t even had his confirmation hearing yet and at least five Republican senators already aren’t sold on him.
“You don’t know where they’re going to land,” said the anonymous GOP senator, meaning he’s bracing for the next unforced error by the White House.
McCain offered some free advice to Trump on how to get back on track after Flynn’s dismissal.
“You’ve got to go through a regular process of decision-making,” he said. “You get someone who’s really well-regarded as the new national security advisor, and you start the machinery running. And don’t, by the way, roll out again a refugee executive order that takes everybody by surprise.”
Some senators were more forgiving. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he thinks Republicans are much happier about working with Trump now that Flynn is out.
“We can all armchair quarterback and suggest it could have been done quicker, but the fact that it’s been handled now is something that I think a lot of us wanted to see the president do without having us put more pressure on him to do so,” said Rounds.
Others didn’t seem to want to talk about Trump’s missteps. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he’s waiting for more details on Flynn’s actions before developing an opinion. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who competed against Trump for president in a heated primary race, gave a bland response about Flynn being “a good man” and the need to keep the country safe.
Asked again if he thinks the protracted controversy over Flynn hurts relations between the Hill and the White House, Cruz stepped into an elevator and stared blankly ahead as the doors closed.
Part of Trump’s problem on the Hill is that, for all his schmoozing, he enjoys publicly berating those who don’t go along with his whims and agenda. In fact, he often saves his most vitriolic tweets for his GOP detractors. It has already soured his relations with a handful of Senate Republicans and, not surprisingly, allows those same Republicans to criticize the White House’s agenda.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), like McCain, has hammered the president and his top advisers over their potential ties to Russian officials who meddled in the presidential election. He’s led the bipartisan opposition to any suggestion out of the White House that the U.S. should ease sanctions against Russia.
Graham only laughed when asked if Flynn’s resignation affects how he’ll work with Trump going forward. He said he still has lots of questions about Flynn, namely whether he acted alone in his conversations with Russian officials and how he may have been compromised by those calls. That aside, Graham sees a silver lining to the mess at the White House.
“It makes it almost impossible for them to lift sanctions on Russia now,” he said.
This story has been updated with comments from McCain.