Dramatic week highlights White House, Congress divide
Washington — The White House sits two miles from the U.S. Capitol, but this week, it might as well have been a world away.
In Congress, Republicans labored around the clock in an ultimately futile bid to overhaul the nation’s health care system. At the White House, officials labored to keep their jobs amid a highly public — and at times, shockingly vulgar — feud between President Donald Trump’s senior advisers that culminated with Friday’s firing of chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Rarely has the gap between the priorities of a president and lawmakers in his own party been so stark. By week’s end, Trump had become largely irrelevant as Republicans’ tried to fulfill a seven-year promise to voters on health care. Trump’s involvement was mainly limited to the occasional tweet. At a closed-door meeting of the House Republican caucus Friday, at least one lawmaker bemoaned the impact of the White House’s internal drama.
“That which is weird is getting weirder at the White House,” Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said after the meeting. “Let’s break through this stuff, let’s produce results. The internal White House warfare is in fact an impediment to doing so.”
The Pennsylvania Avenue divide stretched beyond the health care debacle this week. When the president issued a surprise edict-by-tweet banning transgender people from the military, several high-profile GOP senators rejected the decision. When Trump mused about firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Republican lawmakers quickly took Sessions’ side.
Trump’s flirtation with firing Sessions produced more blowback from Republicans than nearly any other matter this year. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said there would be “holy hell” to pay if Trump took that provocative step. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said that if Trump was thinking about using a procedural move to temporarily replace Sessions without Senate confirmation, he should “forget about it.”
Peter Wehner, a Trump critic who worked in three Republican administrations, said the GOP was moving into “uncharted territory” with a president who should be an ally, but often isn’t.
“They have to embrace reality and begin to try to build a fence around him,” Wehner said.
Some congressional Republicans have privately discussed the risks of continuing to stand with a president who sometimes appears to have no real loyalty to the party. But even at the end of a wild week, none expressed that sentiment publicly.
House members headed out of town for the August recess. And a dejected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell simply said it was time to “move on” from health care.
Again, working off a different script, the president spent Friday touting his administration’s efforts to combat the street gang MS-13, an issue that has become something of a pet project for his administration. He largely shrugged off the health care defeat.
“They should have approved health care last night,” he said. “But you can’t have everything.”
The relationship between Trump and the Republican Party has been complicated from the start. Trump, a former Democrat, was initially viewed as a sideshow by mainstream Republicans when he jumped in the 2016 Republican race and then as an anchor that was expected to drag others in the party down. After his surprise victory, the party and the president formed an uneasy alliance.
For most Republicans, the main factor in their relationship with Trump is the party’s prospects in next year’s midterm elections. Trump’s job approval rating is at a feeble 37 percent, according to the most recent Gallup tracking poll, but still at 86 percent among Republican voters.
But one Republican congressional aide said the party’s biggest fear is heading into midterms with no significant legislative accomplishments that can be wielded as the explanation for why more traditional lawmakers have aligned themselves with a most unconventional president. The aide was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.
Trump did little this week to ease those fears. Instead, he appeared to be the driving force behind a stunning public feud between his new communications director Anthony Scaramucci and Priebus, the embattled chief of staff.
On Thursday morning, as Republican senators began the most crucial day in their efforts to pass a health care bill, new communications director Anthony Scaramucci spent the morning on CNN accusing Priebus of orchestrating leaks. “The fish stinks from the head down,” Scaramucci declared in an interview he said was authorized by the president.
Hours later, as Republican leaders tried to cobble together votes for a scaled back bill, the New Yorker published a vulgar screed from Scaramucci aimed at both Priebus and Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior adviser. There was no condemnation from the president.
On Friday afternoon, just as Air Force One touched back down in Washington, Trump tweeted that he was naming Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as his chief of staff, ousting Priebus after six months.