WASHINGTON – A growing number of congressional Republicans expressed exasperation Friday over what they view as President Donald Trump’s indefensible behavior, a sign that the president’s stranglehold on his party is starting to weaken as Congress hurtles toward a historic impeachment vote.
In interviews with more than 20 GOP lawmakers and congressional aides in the past 48 hours, many said they were repulsed by Trump’s decision to host an international summit at his own resort and incensed by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s admission – later withdrawn – that U.S. aid to Ukraine was withheld for political reasons. Others expressed anger over the president’s abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria.
One Republican, Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida – whose district Trump carried by 22 percentage points – did not rule out voting to impeach the president and compared the situation to the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency.
“I’m still thinking about it, you know?” Rooney said of backing impeachment. “I’ve been real mindful of the fact that during Watergate, all the people I knew said, ‘Oh, they’re just abusing Nixon, and it’s a witch hunt.’ Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt. It was really bad.”
The GOP’s rising frustration is a break from the past three years, when congressional Republicans almost uniformly defended Trump through a series of scandals that engulfed the White House. There’s now a growing sense among a quiet group of Republicans that the president is playing with fire, taking their loyalty for granted as they’re forced to “defend the indefensible,” as a senior House Republican said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.
To be sure, Republican leadership in the House and Senate – and many rank-and-file GOP lawmakers – are still firmly behind Trump, who remains immensely popular with the party base.
While several have criticized the president over policy, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, they have argued against impeachment. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told WGME on Friday the withdrawal from Syria was “incomprehensible,” though she has said she won’t comment on the impeachment inquiry given the Senate’s role in voting on whether to remove a president.
On Friday, Trump’s top allies continued to defend him, playing down the Doral announcement and doing damage control for Mulvaney’s blunder, in which their former House colleague contradicted Trump’s “no quid pro quo” talking point and admitted that the president had withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to force Ukraine to pursue an investigation that would benefit him politically.
Hours after the comments, Mulvaney sought to walk back his remarks. Other Republicans shrugged off the latest controversies, including Trump’s choice of his Florida resort for the international meeting.
“I think the optics aren’t good . . . but we have a lot more problems to worry about,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said the Doral announcement”doesn’t bother me a great deal” even as he admitted, “I think there is certainly an appearance of conflict of interest.”
Still, there was a notable shift in tone, even among some of Trump’s most adamant defenders. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticized Trump’s Syria decision in an op-ed in The Washington Post, just days after 129 House Republicans backed a resolution condemning the president’s move.
Meanwhile, several GOP lawmakers have reached out to White House officials to urge Trump to reconsider his Doral decision, which they worry smacks of corruption, according to GOP officials familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.
Republicans are also privately griping about Mulvaney’s admission on Ukraine. “Get over it,” Mulvaney told reporters at the White House on Thursday before he walked it back.
“It’s not an Etch A Sketch,” said Rooney, who asked: “What is a walkback? I mean, I tell you what, I’ve drilled some oil wells I’d like to walk back – dry holes.”
The new GOP grievances with Trump couldn’t come at a worse time for the president. House Democratic leaders are moving rapidly in their impeachment probe and could hold a vote by the holiday season. They have been turning up an increasingly robust body of evidence showing that the president pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden, a 2020 presidential contender, and his son Hunter.
Additionally, a majority of voters now back the idea of ousting Trump from office – even more Republicans are supporting impeachment.
Yet Republicans believe that Trump has made it harder for them to help him politically survive impeachment and win reelection. For one, his Doral announcement undercuts his own argument that Biden did something wrong when he allowed his son to make a profit from a Ukraine company board.
The only Republicans who applauded Trump’s move were a handful from Florida. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents the district that includes Doral, said that he was”thrilled” and that the move was “great for the economy of Doral.” Sen. Rick Scott agreed, arguing, “There’s no conflict of interest in holding anything in the great state of Florida.”
“I understand the arguments others are going to make about whether it’s lining his pocket at this event and so forth, but as a Floridian, you know, I think it’s good for Florida to have that event,” said Sen. Marco Rubio.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.