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President who? Minnesota’s congressional Republicans and the trouble with talking about Trump

During the election, the question was what it would take for Republicans to publicly say they would not support Trump. Now, it’s at what point they decide that he is toxic enough to derail their policy agenda.

Speaker Paul Ryan has complained that the “noise” of what the media focuses on — the Russia investigation, for example — is obscuring their achievements. But beyond Russia, the noise generated by something like Trump's response to Charlottesville is the president's fault alone, and episodes like that are legitimately endangering the GOP’s ability to get essential tasks completed.
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

It’s become a familiar dance in the halls of the U.S. Capitol: reporter catches Republican lawmaker on his or her way to the floor for a vote. The latest tweet from the president, congressman — what’s your response to that?

Most lawmakers, if they stop to answer the question at all, might pause, brow furrowing. Behind that look of concern, the gears of political calculus are whirring: how bad was the thing Trump said or did? Are my Republican colleagues criticizing him? What has Paul Ryan said? Would my constituents be angry if I criticized the president — or if I didn’t?

Seemingly each week of his turbulent presidency, Donald Trump has said or done something that warrants some temperature-taking among Republicans in Congress: his tweets about North Korea, a tweet announcing a significant change in military policy, his numerous potshots at members of his own party, his firing of an FBI director.

By seeking a response to all this, the idea is to sense where the line is for Trump’s Republican allies in Congress — what move or statement could convince them that their partnership with Trump is doing them more political harm than good.

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For most, that point has not yet arrived, but for the Republicans who find themselves in an uneasy marriage with Trump, the past seven months have offered a daily test with significant consequences for their own political fortunes.

Trump a Capitol fixture since 2015

Republicans being asked to respond to the Trump news du jour is hardly a new phenomenon: as soon as Trump began making waves in the GOP primary back in 2015, Congress was abuzz with Trump talk. But most members brushed off questions, saying they expected to support the eventual nominee — fully expecting, of course, that person would not be Trump.

But he was that person, and Minnesota’s Republicans were forced to carefully figure out how to respond to a campaign that only got more chaotic as election day drew nearer.

Third District Rep. Erik Paulsen, running for re-election in a district that ultimately went for Hillary Clinton by a wide margin, slowly backed away from Trump over the course of 2016, and ultimately declared he would not support him when the infamous Access Hollywood tapes leaked in October. On election day, Paulsen insists he wrote in Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the winner of Minnesota’s GOP caucuses.

Rep. Tom Emmer, of the safely conservative 6th District, was the earliest in the delegation to back Trump, which he did in May. He was the only Minnesota Republican congressman to attend the GOP convention in Cleveland; while there, he sat in the Trump family’s box, and spoke positively to MinnPost about the Trump movement forming around the country.

Rep. Jason Lewis, making his run for the open 2nd District seat, had praised Trump before announcing his campaign, and said he wasn’t afraid of him like some establishment Republicans. But as he moved into the general election, he didn’t have much to say about the GOP nominee.

These strategies paid off for the three Republicans: voters in the 3rd were able to separate Paulsen from Trump — the congressman outperformed the top of the ticket by 16 points — while Emmer looked like he got on the Trump train at just the right station, and Trump’s unexpectedly close result in Minnesota appeared to buoy Lewis, who Democrats tried to brand as a “mini-Trump.”

Even through the end of the campaign, most congressional Republicans were not fiery, #MAGA hat-wearing backers of Trump; most of them expected that he would lose. His win was a pleasant surprise, and by retaining their majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans would have someone in the White House poised to sign their bills into law.

After Trump’s first big address to Congress wrapped up in February — his first major speech to earn some bipartisan praise and good press — even Trump skeptics like Paulsen were enthusiastic about what unified GOP government could accomplish.

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“I think he’s shifting into governing mode,” Paulsen told MinnPost at the time. “The tone was really good… I was really encouraged that he was outlining some substantial initiatives.”

Trump-backers like Emmer were positively giddy: “It’s a message that was just amazing,” he said. “It’s a tone that somebody next to me said, I was waiting to hear that during the campaign. If he maintains that tone it’s going to be awful hard for people not to want to work with him.”

Some comment, no comment

It is safe to say that Trump has not maintained that tone, and people are finding it fairly easy to not work with him.

As they did during the campaign, Republicans must grapple with Trump’s various scandals, tirades, and policy moves — but now, there’s that governing business to worry about, too.

Lawmakers on the Hill are wary of publicly calling out the president — no one wants to be the target of an angry tweet, as several Republicans have been — and want to maintain good relationships with the administration in service of policy goals. But some Republicans can stand to lose credibility at home if they don’t respond to Trump at all.

Lewis, in response to the storm gathering in May over James Comey’s firing as FBI director, offered a statement that now appears evergreen: “Do I agree with the general direction on policy coming out of the White House?” he asked. “On most things I do. Would I have done it the same way? No.”

A complicating factor about Trump news: it usually comes out of nowhere. In July, seemingly unprompted, Trump announced via Twitter that transgender individuals would no longer be permitted to serve in the U.S. military. This caught the Pentagon off guard, which reportedly got little warning of the decision, and it drew overwhelming criticism from Democrats, as well as several prominent Republicans.

Asked by MinnPost his thoughts on the tweets the following day, Emmer declined to comment on the policy, and the way the president rolled it out. “I don’t have any comment,” he said, shaking his head. “If I knew more, I’d tell you.”

Appearing on CNN, Lewis said that transgender people ought to be able to serve. Later, he told MinnPost “you need to let military brass handle things. I don’t know what the president talked with them about.” He went on to say that military policy is about efficiency and readiness, and the question of whether transgender troops being banned would affect that or not should be put to someone “who knows more about it than I do.”

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If this news warranted a no-comment or cautious response from Minnesota’s Republicans, Trump’s comments following last week’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, demanded some kind of response.

On social media, all three Minnesota Republicans responded to the violence instigated by white supremacist protesters, which killed a woman and injured many more counter-protesters. And they responded in a similar way: subtly rebuking the president, but not by name.

After a 20-year-old white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, Lewis, Emmer, and Paulsen all condemned the violence and the racist, anti-semitic ideology that inspired it. “There is no place in civil, respectful society for the horrid views expressed & violence in Charlottesville,” Paulsen said in a tweet.

Later on, the president went on to place blame on “many sides” for the violence, then specifically condemn white supremacists after public outcry, and then go back to his original stance in a fiery press conference in which he blamed both sides and also claimed there were “fine people” on both sides. This earned him some of the worst press of his presidency, with members of Congress from his own party openly doubting his capacity for leadership.

Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican and one of the Senate’s three black members, said on CBS that “it’s going to be very difficult for this president to lead if, in fact, his moral authority remains compromised.” He, along with other top Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio, urged the president to more forcefully denounce white supremacists.

This outcry from the GOP did not encourage similarly bold responses from the Minnesota Republicans: though Emmer and Paulsen released additional statements via Twitter in the wake of Trump’s press conference, they continued to avoid mentioning the president’s name.

“This is cut-and-dry,” Paulsen said on Twitter. “White supremacists & neo-Nazis have no place in our society & that should be made unequivocally clear on all levels.”

“There is no question about it: white supremacy is repugnant & has no place in this great nation we call home,” Emmer tweeted.

Distractions

There isn’t a formula to determine what Trump incidents will provoke a response, or how forceful that response will be.

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With the transgender military service issue, Republicans like Lewis and Emmer thought it best to not push back hard against the president, or to say nothing at all. With Charlottesville, they all appeared to sense a need to respond to his remarks, but displayed a reluctance to call out the person responsible for them.

Like all members of Congress, they have their constituencies to balance. Paulsen’s 3rd District has, in particular, become a hotbed of resistance to Trump and his agenda: the congressman’s social media posts are inundated with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of replies, urging Paulsen to reject Trump and cease supporting his legislative agenda. Even Emmer, who has a safely Republican district that supported Trump, gets considerable heat on social media.

The degree to which Minnesota’s Republicans — particularly Paulsen and Lewis, who are expected to face competitive re-election contests — repudiate or praise Trump will be constant fodder for Democrats through next November’s midterms. (Indeed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has hit Paulsen and Lewis several times in ads in press releases already, linking them with the Trump agenda.)

Clearly, it’s a fool’s errand to predict what this presidency will bring, but the response to Charlottesville showed a growing willingness in the GOP to call out their de facto leader; even before that, numerous reports in Hill press outlets like Politico have indicated Republicans’ growing exasperation with the president’s penchant for controversy.

During the election, the question was what it would take for Republicans to publicly say they would not support Trump. Now, it’s at what point they decide that he is toxic enough to derail their policy agenda.

Even in the relative honeymoon period of Trump’s presidency, the best-case scenarios for what Republicans could accomplish have failed to come to fruition: the GOP’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare crashed and burned, while a big-ticket infrastructure plan remains tabled. Big plans to reform the tax code await, but first Congress must fund the government for next year and raise the debt limit — two tasks that could prove difficult in a fractured Congress.

Republicans, particularly Speaker Paul Ryan, have complained that the “noise” of what the media focuses on — the Russia investigation, for example — is obscuring their achievements. But beyond Russia, the noise generated by something like Trump’s response to Charlottesville is the president’s fault alone, and episodes like that are legitimately endangering the GOP’s ability to get essential tasks completed.

Back in May, Trump fired James Comey as the director of the FBI, igniting a firestorm just as the Senate was preparing to take on health care legislation. Shortly afterward, Rep. Lewis criticized what he framed as the media’s sensational coverage of it, but he seemed to acknowledge a problem in the White House.

His observation seems prescient now: “To get sidetracked is a danger,” he said. “When you’ve got these distractions, I suppose the danger goes up a bit.”