For Republicans, Criticism of President Trump Comes at a Cost

April 10, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona had been one of President Donald Trump’s most outspoken Republican critics when the president arrived in Phoenix last August and went on the counterattack. Flake had just published a new book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” chiding the president for perpetuating “the politics of xenophobia and demonization,” and criticizing his fellow Republicans for having “pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked.”

At a rally in Phoenix, the president bashed Flake without mentioning his name, calling him “weak on borders, weak on crime.” Trump’s appearance sent a clear message: Flake’s voters were now his.

In October, facing approval ratings in the thirties, Flake announced from the Senate floor that after 17 years in Congress, he would not seek re-election. He had tried to stand up to the president, but found that going against the new face of the party had its costs.

“People have said: ‘Why didn’t you stay and fight?’” Flake said in an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary Trump’s Takeover. “You don’t wage a campaign alone. You have to have volunteers; you have to have supporters; you have to have donors. You have to have people with you, and they want you to win. They’re not going to fund and volunteer for an effort just to make a point.”

Flake’s departure signaled what the consequences could be for publicly crossing a president with an approval rating of 89 percent among Republicans despite an average overall approval rating of 39 percent, according to Gallup. Some in the GOP have spoken out on controversies like the Russia investigation and the president’s response to last year’s violence in Charlottesville. But as the president redefines what it means to be a Republican, political scientists and pollsters say that criticism of his agenda from inside the party has grown increasingly subdued.

“What the Republican establishment now know is Donald Trump is unequivocally the leader of the Republican Party,” said Corey Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager, in an interview for Trump’s Takeover. “He is the one who sets the tone of what takes place in Washington. He is the leader of our country, both politically and from a legislative side of things, and I think they’ve learned that over the last year.”

Frances Lee, a co-editor of the journal Legislative Studies Quarterly and a politics professor at the University of Maryland, said that the Republicans who take on the president don’t anticipate facing voters again.

“Trump is still overwhelmingly popular among Republicans, so it’s dangerous for any politician who needs to maintain his standing with the Republican base to alienate himself from the president,” she said.

Experts say that when Republicans have spoken out against President Trump, it has most often come in response to words or actions that they’ve found personally offensive. When the president blamed “both sides” in the aftermath of last year’s violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, for example, Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Florida’s Marco Rubio and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham criticized his response.

“You see more public opposition in the form of statements on issues where it’s really clear to legislators that public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of one side or the other,” said Michael Barber, a political science professor at Brigham Young University.

On issues like the Russia controversy, Republican reaction has been mixed. Some legislators — including Rubio and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — have defended special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation after the president targeted him on Twitter last month. Others have called the integrity of the investigation into question. In February, for example, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee pushed to release a previously classified memo written by the committee’s Republican majority that alleged that both the FBI and the Justice Department abused their authority when seeking to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. (Democrats said the memo provided a misleading picture.)

On policy, lawmakers have disagreed with the president on issues such as immigration, tariffs and last month’s spending bill, but even outspoken critics like Flake, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have voted with the president more than 80 percent of the time, according to an ongoing count of votes in Congress by FiveThirtyEight. John Fortier, the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project, said that disagreement over policy “hasn’t translated itself in a broadly different relationship in terms of coalitions of votes.”

Experts say that’s because despite running on a populist platform, President Trump has governed close to the Republican establishment’s agenda, delivering on long sought-after Republican proposals like last December’s $1.5 trillion tax cut.

Even though some in the GOP — like Flake — have called for the party to be more critical, Republican pollster David Winston said that legislators are largely focused on responding to their constituents’ concerns on jobs and economic growth, not on opposing the president.

Their focus “isn’t on having a discussion on where are you vis-a-vis Trump, but where are you vis-a-vis the economic issues that matter to people,” he said. “Having said that, there are days when there are tweets that go out which make discussing the tax bill versus discussing the Trump tweets difficult and that’s just part of the dynamic that the Republican elected officials are going to have to go through between now and the polls.”

Political scientists said that limited criticism is normal from a president’s own party. Some made parallels to the debate among Republicans over whether to defend President Ronald Reagan following the Iran-Contra scandal. Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant, noted that Democrats in Congress stood by President Bill Clinton during his own controversies.

“Democrats during the Clinton impeachment rallied around Bill Clinton, defended him resolutely and defended his conduct and behavior or at least minimized his conduct and behavior,” he said.

The president has still not angered his party in a way that would provoke a backlash, said Lee of the University of Maryland.

“He hasn’t really crossed the base in a way that would smoke out opposition [from] the hard liners in his party,” she said.

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