Many Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House privately agree with the Trump administration official who went rogue in The New York Times.
They also say the anonymous anti-Trump screed was a tremendous setback when it comes to curbing the president’s worst impulses.
Story Continued Below
Republicans have been laboring to fund the government, push for free trade and reassure allies in the face of President Donald Trump’s penchant for conflict over the border wall, trade deficits and foreign policy. But people working on those matters said Thursday that the Times piece only amps up the president’s paranoia by handing him proof that members of his own team are working against him, according to interviews with more than a dozen Republicans, including nine senators.
“It kind of reinforces his message out there that there’s a bunch of folks here embedded in the Washington bureaucracy that are out to get him. I’m not sure it accomplishes what the folks behind it think it does,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of GOP leadership.
Now the president is likely to view any disagreement from advisers with suspicion.
“What this person did is badly hurt the effort to rein in Trump … and it will make him crazy,” said a Republican close to the White House. “Now, if you say to the president, ‘I see where you’re heading, but I’m not sure about that’ — he’s going to think, ‘Ah, you wrote that.’”
Even some of Trump’s most public critics said they didn’t understand the value of the op-ed, other than to state publicly what’s been discussed privately among Washington Republicans since Trump was elected nearly two years ago.
“I’m not a fan of people doing things in an anonymous way. If you’ve got something to say, look the camera in the eye and say it. Talk to people directly. When I read it, to me there was nothing new,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a frequent Trump critic. “Any of us who have dealt with the White House understand the situation that’s there.”
“There are lots of really, really good people around the president who are trying to restrain his impulsiveness,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday morning. “I don’t understand the morality of why anyone would write the piece, because it seems pretty obvious to me that what it’s going to do is foster more paranoia.”
A handful of Republicans including Corker, Sasse and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) often air their complaints about Trump publicly. But the vast majority of GOP lawmakers carp about the president’s erratic behavior in private, while quietly working on legislation that in some cases contradicts the president’s positions.
The anonymous op-ed argued that the president resisted diplomatic efforts to push back on Russian aggression — including a move to expel Russian spies in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Great Britain — before giving in to senior advisers. GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill have done much the same, helping to force the imposition of additional sanctions on Russia in July of last year over White House objections, but without labeling themselves part of the resistance.
Flake said he’s much more impressed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions fortitude in refusing to quit in the face of constant barbs and insults from Trump than he was by an administration aide calling out Trump under the cloak of anonymity.
“What’s more remarkable is what’s going on out in the open: Jeff Sessions. You have the president instructing him to reward his friends and punish his enemies and Jeff is saying no,” the retiring Arizona senator said. “That’s the preferred model. And I hope he keeps it up.”
But such episodes have been rare since the presidential campaign, when dozens of Republican foreign policy experts signed letters declaring their opposition to Trump on the grounds that he was, in their view, unfit for office.
“Most fundamentally, Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, experience to be president,” one of the letters stated. Many Republicans didn’t sign the letters: domestic policy wonks and elected officials were not invited to do so. But it nonetheless captured the consensus view of most Republicans both during the campaign and since Trump entered the White House.
While the letter signers outed themselves publicly and were blacklisted by the new administration, hundreds of policy experts who shared their views but did not publicly denounce the president during the campaign joined the new administration. The result, to a larger extent than ever before, is a government filled with hundreds of political appointees — tapped for their ostensible loyalty to the administration — who nonetheless have a dim view of the president.
Though they disagree with the publication of an op-ed laying out the quiet resistance to Trump, many Republicans have tried their own tactics at moderating the president. Top party leaders have tried, repeatedly, to tell the president to stop making off-the-cuff remarks and tweets. Among his latest missives, Trump raised the prospect of “treason” and demanded that the Times turn over the name of the anonymous official in the name of national security.
“A number of us have given the president some friendly advice, like on the Twitter account and the like. But he’s convinced that helped him get elected president,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “We’ve tried to give him advice in that area. And he rejected it.”
Cornyn was with Trump and other top leaders when the Times op-ed came out. At the time, the president was discussing revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book and praising his staff for publicly refuting them.
With Trump already feeling embattled by Woodward’s book, Republicans’ patience for anonymous dishing about the White House is growing thinner. This is not the time for more drama, they say: The party’s congressional majorities in Congress on the line, and a government shutdown deadline is weeks away.
Several senators said in interviews that the op-ed author should resign and go public if he or she wants to make a point.
“You work at his pleasure [of the president]. If the moment comes when you know longer work for him, you should leave. And if you feel that you saw things you didn’t like and the public deserves to know, you should say it publicly and you should say it in your name,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “It’s not a good precedent to set for our republic.”
If the op-ed writer intended on drawing out more public critics in the administration or Congress, there was no evidence on Thursday that it had worked. And now, some of Trump’s closest allies say the party is determined now more than ever to rally around him.
“I think it’s actually helping the president, I really do, to have something like that happen,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). “There’s a turncoat in there. I just think that has the opposite effect than intended.”