Washington — In a city bound by tradition, every president taps a legislative affairs director to work with Congress. President-elect Donald Trump appears ready to use a legislative whip like none other: Twitter.
On the opening day of Congress, Trump demonstrated the power of his 18.5-million Twitter followers and the clout of his populist credentials. With just a couple of tweets, the president-elect helped achieve what GOP leaders could not the night before, successfully pressuring House Republicans to reverse course on a plan to essentially scuttle an independent congressional ethics board.
The move, only hours before Congress was sworn in, likely offered an early preview of how Trump intends to use his tech-savvy bully pulpit to persuade lawmakers who share his party affiliation but not all of his policy priorities. If Tuesday’s tactic is an example, the days of private back-channel negotiations and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting may now be giving way to a new era of lobbying by social media shaming.
“Virtually everything he does is a different style than Washington is used to,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said of Trump’s lobbying style. “He’s going to be very public, very aggressive.”
By Trump’s standards, the tweets that piled pressure on lawmakers were relatively mild.
After House Republicans voted in a closed-door session on Monday evening — a federal holiday — to undercut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, government watchdogs and Democratic lawmakers railed against the move and people began calling their representatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had opposed the changes, fearing exactly the kind of backlash that emerged.
Then Trump weighed in with two Twitter messages Tuesday morning, writing, “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority.”
The incoming president urged fellow Republicans to focus on top agenda items like a tax overhaul, health care and “so many other things of far greater importance!” His tweet ended with (hashtag)DTS — a reference to “drain the swamp,” a popular catch-phrase during his outsider presidential campaign.
About two hours later, House Republicans, facing a deluge from angry constituents, dropped their plans to place the ethics board under their own control. The original rule’s author, Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, saw his Facebook and Twitter pages bombarded with hundreds of critical messages. After Congress reversed course, Virginia resident Ed Heresniak celebrated on Goodlatte’s Facebook page, writing: “Dead. Trump killed it with a ‘tweet.’”
Trump won’t rely on Twitter alone as his means of communicating with Congress.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a former Indiana congressman, is expected to be a key conduit to lawmakers and was to meet with House Republicans on Wednesday. Trump has taken steps to fill out a more traditional congressional outreach team. He’s hired Rick Dearborn, a former aide to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, as a deputy chief of staff and Marc Short, a top Pence aide, as the White House legislative affairs director. Both previously served in chief of staff positions on the Hill.
They’ll have no shortage of work to do. Republicans in Congress differ sharply from Trump on major issues, including trade, Russia policy and entitlements.
Trump seems ready to use the lobbying approach that fueled his campaign. As a candidate, he ridiculed his political opponents and detractors on Twitter, often in cutting personal terms, in a manner that his supporters said they found refreshing and direct.
Fear of a Trump Twitter tirade could help congressional leadership, which has chafed with its own membership in recent years.
That brash approach appeared to tame — at least for now — a rowdy group of House Republicans who have flummoxed both former House Speaker John Boehner and Ryan at times.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the present-elect’s tweet this morning absolutely shifted the debate on this to where yesterday’s decision was reversed. There’s no two ways about it, because as of last night it was a done deal,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters in Congress.
Collins, who serves as congressional liaison to the Trump transition team, said he didn’t receive any heads up about Trump’s opinion on the rules change before the president-elect tweeted.
House GOP leadership aides said Ryan’s office was in touch with Trump’s transition team about the changes on Monday evening but Trump’s views were not clear until he fired off the tweets.
It was also done in true Trump fashion, allowing some supporters to read into it what they want to believe.
Trump didn’t flatly oppose the decision — he questioned the timing and the prioritization of it — and his tweets did not chastise lawmakers on the merits of their plan.
By suggesting the watchdog apparatus under siege from lawmakers might be “unfair,” Trump spoke to lawmakers who have complained that they have been unfairly targeted by the independent ethics office. A top Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, told ABC on Tuesday morning, prior to Trump’s Twitter posts, that there had been “overzealousness” under the old system.
Trump had few admirers in Congress when he launched his campaign about 18 months ago but his tactics appear to be working — for now.
“I’m not with him on everything, but on ‘drain the swamp,’ I will work with him on anything he wants to do,” said North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican. “My hope is that his involvement will open a door for us. I’m not sure how wide, but a crack is better than no crack.”
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