Jules Witcover: Trump’s party apostasy

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — All through Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party last year, his masquerading as a loyal foot soldier in the ranks was transparently shallow. Now his deal with Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi tying hurricane relief to raising the federal debt limit has stripped away his mask.

Faced with the choice of being seen as guardian angel of the Texas and Florida hurricane victims, or as the Grinch who stole Christmas from the nearly 800,000 young immigrant “dreamers” facing deportation, Trump’s pick was obvious. He played the good-guy card on swift hurricane relief and passed the buck on the latter concern, with a half-promise that if Congress didn’t bail them out he would do so himself.

Then, the titular leader of the Grand Old Party who had never played much role in its affairs turned around and knifed his own congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, by linking the disaster relief to boosting the debt ceiling.

Trump did so at an open White House meeting with the leaders of both parties. Ryan had labeled the notion “ridiculous” and one that would undermine basic GOP ambitions to curb federal spending. McConnell dodged by saying “the president can speak for himself, but his feeling was we needed to come together, not to create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis.”

Members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus intensified their own rebellion against Speaker Ryan and more rumblings of ousting him. Some even raised the specter of turning to a non-congressional member like former Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to take over.

But Trump’s sudden willingness to abandon the freeze of congressional stalemate and join forces with the Democrats to bail him out of his victory-starved first year in office could have another major political consequence. It could finally light a fire under the broader, moderate Republican establishment so thoroughly frustrated and ignored by this outsider president.

It has been one thing for Trump to have consistently mocked and humiliated old-line GOP stalwarts, first in back-handing the likes of Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and more recently John McCain, in his contemptuous hostile takeover. It’s another now to have joined forces with “the enemy” in his desperate desire to break out of the logjam that has only intensified under his tenure.

Given Trump’s own lack of clarity in appraising his actions and motives, key Republicans professed uncertainty on whether his swift and accommodating gesture toward Democratic leaders marked more than an isolated break in the ice, or an augur of a gentler, kinder version of this heretofore bull in a china shop. McCain himself told The Washington Post: “Haven’t seen anything like it before. I have no way of divining his motives.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut observed in a Post interview that “there aren’t governing philosophies. There’s a day-by-day, seat of the pants management.”

Nancy Pelosi for one said later that Trump had even responded favorably to her suggestion that he tweet his willingness to bail out the imperiled young undocumented immigrants protected by former President Obama’s DACA program, to ease their fears of deportation if Congress did not act to do so. He then tweeted: “For all those that are concerned about your status … you have nothing to worry about — No action!”

Too much, to be sure, can be read into any single Trump action or gesture, considering his track record for inconsistency and impetuous reactions to twists in the road of political discourse. Yet if this nominally Republican president continues to demonstrate a greater willingness to do business with the congressional Democrats, his up-to-now docile party establishment colleagues could finally break out of their go-along shell.

More likely though, while they may grumble a bit more, they will probably just continue to make the best of the decision of their angriest and disaffected voters who put Trump in the Oval Office to “drain the swamp” in Washington.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.

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