Donald Trump visited the marble halls of the Capitol Tuesday in an attempt to get Senate Republicans on board with his perpetually evolving agenda – but the divisions and bitter infighting consuming the GOP stole the spotlight.
Before a closed-door lunch meeting with members of his party, one senior senator publicly derided the event as a photo-op for the president. Another Republican even brought popcorn to the lunch – a fitting snack, some would argue, for watching a president who seems to know more about entertainment than policy.
The event got off to a bang when a protester somehow infiltrated the press corps and threw Russian flags stamped with Trump’s name at the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while yelling “Trump is treason!” (He was promptly arrested.)
Inside the meeting, Trump was greeted with three standing ovations as senators dined on meatloaf – a favorite dish of the president – and chicken. He spoke and answered questions on topics including taxes, the opioid crisis, a bipartisan health care bill and federal judges. Many in the GOP report the lunch was helpful for a divided party.
“It was a very positive meeting. We didn’t hold hands and sing ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ but it was a positive, professional meeting,” Republican Sen. John Kennedy told reporters afterward. “Nobody called anybody an ignorant slut,” he joked, in reference to the old Saturday Night Live bit.
But one meeting doesn’t seem like it will be enough to heal the divisions in the GOP. On Tuesday morning, the bitterness that’s engulfed Trump’s presidency boiled over as the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, once again lashed out at the president.
“At the end of the day, when his term is over, I think the debasing of our nation, the constant non-truth-telling, just the name-calling, the things – I think the debasement of our nation will be what he’ll be remembered most for, and that’s regretful,” Corker, who is retiring, told CNN.
The president then lashed out at Corker on Twitter.
“Bob Corker, who helped President O give us the bad Iran Deal & couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Tennessee, is now fighting Tax Cuts,” Trump wrote. “Corker dropped out of the race in Tennesse [sic] when I refused to endorse him, and now is only negative on anything Trump. Look at his record!”
The president has now gone out of his way to lambast 11 of the 52 Republicans in the Senate – the very same Republicans he needs to pass his agenda. Those splinters in the party were on full display just after the lunch, as Arizona Republican Jeff Flake announced his retirement, taking to the Senate floor to deliver a blistering attack on Trump.
“In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being ‘the new normal’ – that we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top,” Flake told his colleagues. “We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.”
Frustration has been steadily growing on the House side of the Capitol, where Republicans have passed nearly 300 bills that are sitting untouched in the Senate. Many of those are mundane, though many others are controversial, like their Obamacare repeal bill. But conservatives in the lower chamber fear their party will get punished by voters if they fail to carry through on their campaign promises, especially their party’s seven-year campaign pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. That has some Republicans leaping to Trump’s defense.
“That’s his style. He’s brash. He hits back,” Republican Ralph Norman tells Rolling Stone. “We’re all grown. We’re all in the political arena and can take criticism as well as praise, or should be able to. They’re not glass dolls. They’re going to have to take it. And he wants action.”
The president has been active in signing executive orders, but he’s growing increasingly frustrated that Republicans in Congress have yet to send him any major planks of his legislative agenda for him to sign. And the clock is ticking, with next year’s midterm elections quickly approaching. That means there are only a few months left for the GOP to realistically pass tax reform, health care reform, funding for Trump’s border wall, a new version of the DREAM Act and a plethora of other top Republican priorities.
Though Trump came to the Capitol Tuesday to try to push his stalled legislative agenda through a sharply divided chamber, many lawmakers say he likely undermined that goal before his motorcade even started rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue.
“This is not unusual – President Trump has made it clear that if you disagree with him that he’s going to take you on,” Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin tells Rolling Stone. “And he does it in a way that is unbefitting the president of the United States and a world leader, and he is counterproductive to what he’s trying to get achieved also. So it makes no sense, but that’s who he is.”