Trump Dismisses Midterm Threat, Alarming GOP
Posted April 28, 2018 12:53 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is privately rejecting the growing consensus among Republican leaders that they may lose the House and possibly the Senate in November, leaving party officials and the president’s advisers nervous that he does not grasp the gravity of the threat they face in the midterm elections.
Congressional and party leaders and even some Trump aides are concerned that the president’s boundless self-assurance about politics will cause him to ignore or undermine their midterm strategy. In battleground states like Arizona, Florida and Nevada, Trump’s proclivity to be a loose cannon could endanger the Republican incumbents and challengers who are already facing ferocious Democratic headwinds.
Republicans in Washington and Trump aides have largely given up assuming the president will ever stick to a teleprompter, but they have joined together to impress upon him just how bruising this November could be for Republicans — and how high the stakes are for Trump personally, given that a Democratic-controlled Congress could pursue aggressive investigations and even impeachment.
Over dinner with the president and other Republican congressional leaders this month, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, phrased his advice for the president in the form of a reminder: Trump should never forget his central role in the 2018 campaign, McConnell said, explaining that Republicans’ prospects are linked to what he says and does and underscoring that their one-seat advantage in the Senate was in jeopardy.
If McConnell’s warning was not clear enough, Marc Short, the White House’s legislative liaison, used the dinner to offer an even starker assessment. The GOP’s House majority is all but doomed, he said.
But Trump was not moved. “That’s not going to happen,” he said at different points during the evening, shrugging off the grim prognoses, according to multiple officials briefed on the conversation.
The disconnect between the president — a political novice whose confidence in his instincts was grandly rewarded in 2016 — and more traditional party leaders demonstrates the depth of the Republicans’ challenges in what is likely to be a punishing campaign year.
Trump is as impulsive as ever, fixated on personal loyalty, cultivating a winner’s image and privately prodding Republican candidates to demonstrate their affection for him — while complaining bitterly when he campaigns for those who lose. His preoccupation with the ongoing Russia investigation adds to the unpredictability, spurring Trump to fume aloud in ways that divide the GOP and raising the prospect of legal confrontations amid the campaign. And despite projecting confidence, he polls nearly all those who enter the Oval Office about how they view the climate of the midterms.
According to advisers, the president plans to hold a fundraiser a week in the months to come and hopes to schedule regular rallies with candidates starting this summer. But there is not yet any coordinated effort about where to deploy Trump, and there are divisions within his ever-fractious circle of advisers about how to approach the elections. Among his close associates, a debate is raging about whether to focus on House races that could earn the president chits with Republican lawmakers who might ultimately vote on impeachment, or to dig in to defend the party’s tenuous Senate majority.
“We need to be unified, and I know this is a frustrating business that we’re involved in, but rather than having circular firing squads, we need to be shooting outward,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said of the White House.
Nearly every modern president has lost seats in his first midterm election, and President Bill Clinton saw both the House and the Senate fall to Republicans in 1994. But given Trump’s polarizing administration, the results this fall are likely to hinge more than ever on the man in the White House.
Anger toward Trump has become a crucial motivating tool for Democrats. Already, Republicans have spent millions on House special elections in strongly conservative areas of Pennsylvania and Arizona, losing one seat and retaining the other by a relatively narrow margin.
At the same time, Republican leaders believe he is an essential force for savaging Senate Democrats and turning out voters on the right.
Yet congressional leaders remain deeply frustrated about Trump’s improvisational pronouncements. At the White House dinner, McConnell raised one such policy and expressed hope that Trump could resolve the matter of his proposed tariffs, which have instilled deep worry among farm-state Republicans. “If we can get trade resolved that would be exceptionally important,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said when asked in an interview how the president could help in the midterms.
Other Republican lawmakers have begun pleading with the president to be disciplined and hold up the growing economy and sweeping tax overhaul they passed in December.
“He’s always defied political convention, but this is a political convention I think that we should adhere to,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., "which is to focus on that which is important to people, which is their wallet.”
When House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., hosted a meeting of major Republican donors in Austin, Texas, this month, the head of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the primary House GOP super PAC, delivered a presentation with a plea that the party “must sell the benefits of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” to retain the House.
Trump, though, has little appetite to carry a singular tax-cuts-and-the-economy argument and is grousing about what he sees as uninspired messaging by congressional leaders like Ryan. Appearing in West Virginia this month at an event meant to showcase the party’s tax agenda, Trump discarded his prepared remarks — even describing them as “boring” — and turned to more incendiary issues such as immigration.
Eric Beach, a Republican strategist who leads a pro-Trump political committee, Great America PAC, said Trump was rightly suspicious of the political formula favored by conventional Republican leaders like Ryan and McConnell.
“He doesn’t think that’s how you win elections because that’s not how he won his election,” Beach said. “He knows and understands that the core issues of today are illegal immigration — including building the wall — and trade inequity.”
Congressional leaders have left little doubt in private that they see Trump as a political millstone for many of the party’s candidates. In recent weeks, McConnell has confided to associates that Republicans may lose the Senate because of the anti-Trump energy on the left.
And at Ryan’s retreat, a Republican pollster, Kristen Soltis Anderson, identified Trump as a major source of the party’s woes, according to multiple attendees. Anderson noted that his job approval was markedly weaker than past presidents, including President Barack Obama in the months before Democrats lost 63 House seats in the 2010 elections.
Trump, for his part, has complained to associates about having been deployed to campaign for relatively weak Republicans like Roy Moore, who lost the 2017 Senate race in Alabama, and Rick Saccone, who lost the special House election in Pennsylvania in March.
He has taken the losses personally, particularly in Alabama, because the vacancy there was a result of his decision to make Jeff Sessions attorney general, an appointment he has since regretted. Trump has subsequently blamed others in the party for thrusting him into episodes of humiliating defeat.
The scars from those races have made Trump reluctant to weigh in on the race that Senate Republicans most want his imprint on right now: the contest to replace Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who resigned this month. The president met this month with Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, the Republican appointee there and the favorite of the party establishment. Reflecting his fixation on personal loyalty, Trump quizzed Hyde-Smith on whether she had supported another candidate for president in 2016 before endorsing him. When Hyde-Smith said she had not, the president exclaimed that he needed more supporters like her in Washington, people briefed on the meeting said.
But his staff pointedly told her not to request the president’s endorsement at the meeting. White House officials have created a series of fundraising and organizational benchmarks that they want to see the new senator reach before they make a decision — a sign of how wary they are of entangling a president sensitive to political setbacks in elections that Republicans are not guaranteed to win.
Despite the lingering disputes with congressional Republicans, White House officials say the president is eager to return to the campaign trail.
Although some Republicans in competitive states may not want to appear with Trump — Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for example, has told associates he is unlikely to campaign with the president — there is no lack of lawmakers eager for his help.
Rep. Lee M. Zeldin, R-N.Y., said he would welcome Trump on the trail anytime.
“I would expect the president and vice president to be in congressional districts all across the country,” Zeldin said. “I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback on the desire of the president’s team to be as helpful as possible.”
Trump has also won praise on Capitol Hill for intervening in a handful of Senate races — including Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota and Ohio — that were threatening to grow messy.
What has stunned Republican veterans outside the White House is how, even 15 months into his presidency, Trump still lacks any unified political organization.
John Kelly, the White House chief of staff and a retired Marine general, has scant political acumen. And while the White House political staff has sought to bring a measure of order, curbing some of the president’s knee-jerk endorsement tendencies, Trump does not necessarily view them as his primary political counselors. This vacuum has, as is often the case with this White House, triggered fierce internecine scrapping among those vying for Trump’s ear.
The president’s announcement that Brad Parscale, his 2016 digital guru, would manage his 2020 re-election campaign caught many of his most senior advisers by surprise, according to multiple Republicans. And the hasty decision immediately raised suspicions it was part of a power play by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, to isolate Corey Lewandowski, the president’s 2016 campaign manager and occasional adviser.
Parscale has rankled Trump advisers by giving the president a perpetually rosy assessment of his poll numbers. He often tells Trump his numbers have “never been higher,” according to two advisers.
Parscale has also irritated some Trump officials by attempting to take over the political portfolio, with his scheduling of meetings to devise an as-yet-unformed midterm strategy getting back to other factions.
But his ascension marks only the newest power center in Trump’s political orbit: There is his White House staff, his vice president, the Republican National Committee, his family, his campaign alumni, his super PAC, his congressional allies, his conservative media friends and now his re-election team.
All are expected to want a voice in Republican strategy for Trump in the midterms, adding only more chaos, as one White House official phrased it, to an already unruly presidency.