The relationship between President Trump and GOP leaders in Congress started as a marriage of convenience, thrown together by necessity and sustained on the promise of pushing a Republican agenda into law.
Until recently, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tolerated Trump’s turbulent debut because they agreed with the direction the White House was heading — or were confident they could nudge it in the desired one.
Many Republicans backed the travel ban, despite the rocky rollout. They support upending Obama-era regulations and raved about Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
“For most of us, there has been such a yearning ... to get something done, even if they don’t agree with the tactic, they applaud the result,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
But the newfound partnership is showing signs of serious strain. Growing discomfort about the Trump team’s ties to Russia, daily dramas at the White House and the increasing unrest at town hall meetings with constituents back home have prompted second thoughts about the alliance.
As the first 100 days tick away, and rank-and-file Republicans head home for a weeklong recess, there is a growing worry that Congress will face a drip-drip-drip of new revelations about the Trump White House that will overshadow the rest of the Republican agenda, such as repealing Obamacare, enacting tax reform and cutting government spending.
“That’s what the fear is,” said one Republican senator, granted anonymity to frankly discuss the outlook. “It’s not a good situation. You can’t let this go and not look at it.”
In the first significant rebuke of the White House, Republican senators this week tanked Trump’s pick for Labor secretary, fast-food executive Andy Puzder, rather than put their votes on the line for someone who hired an immigrant housekeeper who was in the country illegally and had been accused decades ago of spousal abuse.
The Senate revolt came as Trump’s firing of national security advisor Michael Flynn exposed lawmakers to a web of unanswered questions about Russian influence on the administration.
For a while, Republican leaders tried to swat back media inquiries about Trump’s latest unconventional moves or statements by refusing to engage in what they dismissed as mere distractions from the work of governing.
They often acted as self-appointed Trump translators, explaining the substance of the president’s policies in language more befitting of Washington norms than the president’s often-jarring presentations.
The travel ban, for example, has become for Republicans a “travel pause.”
“Look, the president has a responsibility to the security of this country,” Ryan said after a weekend of airport chaos over the order that temporarily blocked arrivals from seven mostly Muslim nations and refugees worldwide. “Now, I think it's regrettable that there was some confusion on the rollout of this.… We are going to make sure that we get this program up and running with the kind of vetting standards that we all want to see.”
But hardly a day goes by that Ryan or McConnell aren’t asked to defend Trump’s latest provocations on Twitter or the next executive order rumored to be coming from the White House.
Republican leadership is gambling that their best bet is to look past Trump's Andrew Jackson-like coarseness in hopes of accomplishing their broader goals.
“There's no question Donald Trump is a different kind of president,” McConnell said this week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “He’s different. But I like what he's doing.”
One Republican former leadership aide said “there’s not a single Republican anywhere” who’s not stunned by some of Trump’s comments. But they focus instead on the Republican priorities they see taking shape, he said.
“In the end, we’re still talking about tax reform, Supreme Court, all the stuff is getting done,” the aide said. “Most of the stuff is sort of within the lines of what Republicans want anyway. People by and large think progress has been made.”
Trump has already started signing into law bills sent by Congress rolling back Obama’s regulatory clampdown on coal pollution and overseas corporate bribes. More are on the way to his desk.
Republicans have put their trust in Vice President Mike Pence, the Cabinet secretaries and a legislative team culled from the halls of Congress — even though it is unclear how much sway those voices ultimately have with the occupant of the Oval Office.
And areas of significant disagreement with Trump lay ahead, such as his $1-trillion infrastructure plan, having Congress pony up funds for the border wall with Mexico, and a massive military buildup.
But the Russian questions are threatening to overshadow Republican goals. Emboldened Democrats are calling for independent inquiries into alleged contacts between Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence officials, and demanding the release of a transcript of a wiretapped conversation between Flynn and a Russian diplomat.
The Republican leadership has tried to contain the congressional investigations to the House and Senate intelligence committees, where hearings are often conducted in secret because of the classified nature.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) suggested that former Obama administration officials were behind intelligence leaks about Flynn and others. “I have never seen such a concerted effort to try and make an administration fail so early on,” he said.
Trump is also pushing back hard, saying Thursday that “Russia is a ruse.”
The issue threatens to not only distract Republicans but divide them over how aggressively to investigate the president.
Many are mindful of poll numbers that show Trump popular among Republicans and his core supporters, even as most Americans, 56%, according to Pew, disapprove of his performance.
But a growing number of top Republicans, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are calling for a deeper and more transparent dive into Russia’s role in the November election. That could take weeks, or more likely months.
“What the hell went on? That’s what’s on my mind,” McCain said. “We know they tried to affect the outcome of the election.... Now we’ve got all these other issues.”