Some Republicans spoke out forcefully against President Donald Trump’s handling of this week’s summit with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. But most GOP lawmakers held their tongue on account of one person: Trump himself.
Privately, Republican lawmakers say they tend to agree with the widely held assessment that the US leader blew it in Helsinki, where critics say he betrayed his intelligence chiefs and took a submissive posture before Russia’s KGB-agent-turned-president.
But many of those same Republicans, particularly those facing re-election fights in November’s mid-terms, fear that speaking out forcefully against Trump now would amount to political suicide, according to strategists and experts who engage with them.
Even as bipartisan backlash forced Trump and the White House into a series of embarrassing reversals and clarifications, the majority in the party that controls Congress appeared unwilling to deviate publicly from their leader.
Such is Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party, and his loyal grassroots base, that many members find themselves in a political straightjacket — bound by support for a populist president regardless of his displays of weakness or foreign policy naivete.
“They just don’t want to be in his sights and at the end of his wrath,” Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist firmly in the “never Trump” camp, told AFP.
“They all understand who Trump is and they don’t like it, they wish it were different. But they’re winning on certain policy issues like tax cuts,” he said.
Trump’s propensity to tweet rage against lawmakers who defy him can swiftly end political careers, including Republican ones, as it did last month with South Carolina congressman and Trump critic Mark Sanford.
Staying in the president’s good graces can ensure the campaign money spigot keeps flowing. Ganging up on Trump would drag Republican lawmakers down across the board.
Meanwhile, no antidote to Trump’s insult politics has emerged.
“Nobody knows how to counteract this reality show act,” Tyler went on. Trump “drags you down into the mud, and that’s not a place that many politicians are used to going.”
Outrage over Trump?
Republicans not seeking re-election — including senators John McCain, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, and congressmen Ryan Costello — felt liberated enough to offer stinging criticism of Trump this week.
But most others held their brickbats.
“I think the president clarified his statement and confirmed” that Russia meddled in the US election, number two Senate Republican John Cornyn said when asked if Republicans were speaking out enough about Trump’s performance.
Were Republicans refusing to defy Trump because they feared losing seats in November? “No, we’re not,” Cornyn insisted.
Mike Allen, a co-founder of Axios, offered a clear rationale for Republicans eagerly embracing Trump’s multiple reversals in the wake of Helsinki.
“They need a fig leaf so they can justify quickly returning to support their president, who is vastly more popular with Republican voters than any of them are,” Allen wrote.
Indeed, recent polls show Trump’s disastrous week made no dent in his popularity among Republicans.
While just one third of Americans — and eight percent of Democrats — approve of Trump’s handling of the Putin summit, 68 percent of Republicans approve, according to a CBS News poll released Thursday.
Another survey showed even stronger Republican support — 79 percent — for how Trump handled his joint press conference with Putin.
“I’ve never seen this before,” admitted Robert Shapiro, a professor of political science at Columbia University.
Shapiro, who has long studied trends in American politics and public opinion, said it was notable that it was not just Republicans facing tough re-election fights this year who were sticking with Trump.
“Those who are not up for re-election just don’t want to upset the apple cart in terms of keeping power in the House and Senate,” Shapiro said.
Non-presidential elections routinely feature low turnout, and what matters will be whether Trump can get his engaged grassroots base to the polls in significant numbers.