Republican Resistance to Trump Growing, from Helsinki to the Heartland - But Will It Make Any Difference?

Donald Trump’s antics in Helsinki have set off a confluence of conservative resistance — often led by some of the Republicans most reticent to criticize the president in the past — that finds him in an unfamiliar state: virtually all alone in his attempt to frame his obvious retreat as a victory.

For more than a year and a half, Republicans in Congress have appeared feckless at best and complicit at worst in the face of Trump’s countless controversies and often inexplicable conduct. But after the president stood on the same stage as Vladimir Putin and refused to condemn Russia’s election interference, threw the U.S. intelligence community under the bus, and then blatantly lied about the whole debacle, the blowback from his own party has been swift and seemingly unrelenting.

After Trump said on Twitter last week that his Helsinki summit with Putin “may prove to be, in the long run, an even greater success” than his meetings with NATO allies, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill on Thursday to prevent Trump from withdrawing the U.S. from NATO without the prior approval of the Senate. Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and John McCain of Arizona joined with Democrats on the legislation, while Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said earlier this week that he was also working with Democrats to draft similar legislation to block Trump.

Standing alongside Trump in Helsinki, Putin publicly admitted a possible motivation for meddling in the 2016 election, acknowledging for the first time that he favored the Republican presidential candidate over Democrat Hillary Clinton because of Trump’s conciliatory approach to Russia. While Republicans found less overt signs of conspiracy acceptable (at least as long as it advantaged their party), apparently such over-the-top collusion is still frowned upon in polite circles.

“The administration tells us, ‘Don’t worry, be patient, there is a strategy here,’" said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a bipartisan grilling of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "But from where we sit, it appears that in a ‘ready, fire, aim’ fashion, the White House is waking up every morning and making it up as they go.” As Pompeo scrambled to clean up Trump’s mess on Wednesday, the president’s second secretary of state appeared to argue that the world should simply ignore Trump’s words in favor of the actions of his appointees.

Hours later, the White House quietly announced that it had scrapped previously announced plans to host Putin at the White House ahead of the midterms. It had becomingly increasingly clear that the invitation had been rebuffed by Putin, but also left Republicans in Congress (and Trump's own administration) dismayed.    

The next day, the GOP-led House, a constant source of support for the embattled president, voted overwhelmingly for an annual defense authorization bill that reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO and to increase the defensive capabilities of European allies. Separately, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chair of the House Oversight Committee, said on Fox News Sunday that evidence of Russia’s attack on the U.S. is overwhelming and that Trump “needs to say that and act like it.”

Even the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, normally a reservoir of Republicans willing to debase themselves to distract from Trump’s myriad troubles, came up short in this week's effort to hamstring special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. While 11 Freedom Caucus members introduced a bill to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, they didn't even try to bring it to a floor vote on Thursday.

Trump was also left reeling from two other blows against him in the GOP's intraparty warfare this week.

On his key domestic issue, immigration, Republican leadership has generally been reluctant to speak against Trump's policies. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had to scramble to the White House on Wednesday to convince the president to avert a government shutdown over funding for his border wall ahead of the midterm elections.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., who faces a tough re-election fight in a suburban swing district where voters favored Clinton over Trump in 2016, voted against the Trump administration on immigration twice this week. In an unusual bipartisan move, the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee unanimously passed a measure to reverse a Trump administration decision that immigrants will not be allowed to use claims of domestic violence or gang threats in asylum claims.

“As a son of a social worker, I have great compassion for those victims of domestic violence anywhere, especially as it concerns those nations that turn a blind eye to crimes of domestic violence,” Yoder said after Thursday’s vote.

Yoder, who has voted with the Trump administration 92 percent of the time, also joined with Democrats this week to deliver a rebuke of another one of Trump's controversial immigration policies. One day after flying aboard Air Force One alongside the president, Yoder voted against him and in favor of an investigation of the administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Republican resistance was also the reason why Trump was forced to backtrack on a third signature issue this week, as some of his most ardent supporters — from corporate boardrooms to voters in the heartland — forcefully pushed back against him. 

The president's approval ratings have barely budged through a summer of controversy. Robust economic data, buoyed by the GOP's corporate tax cuts, have helped Trump. His administration has forecasted GDP growth that tops 3 percent this year. But now an escalating trade war started by Trump is threatening the health of the economy — and congressional Republicans' only hopes for midterm success.

Republican Sen. Mike Rounds tried to sound the alarm during a private GOP lunch on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, telling his Republican colleagues that he’s been seeing fewer “Make America Great Again” hats in South Dakota, the Washington Post reported.

“I am not a fan of tariffs,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., a Trump supporter who is running a competitive Senate race (for the seat being abandoned by Corker) against popular former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen. “Many of these [farmers] would like free trade and definitely want it to be fair,” she explained. “They appreciate the president's end goal but are very concerned about transition.”

Trump recently levied harsh taxes on European imports, while the European Union has retaliated with tariffs on U.S. goods made in Trump country like Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Kentucky bourbon. Trump’s tariffs have already cost U.S. agricultural interests $13 billion. That's why the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council joined forces for a $2.5 million campaign against the president’s tariffs.

Trump appeared to walk back his bluster on trade on Wednesday, but not before he doled out $12 billion in taxpayer funds for emergency aid to already heavily subsidized American farmers who've been hurt by retaliatory tariffs.

"We agreed today to work toward zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods," Trump said after meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the White House on Wednesday. 

Of course, no timetable was outlined and no framework to roll back tariffs was actually agreed upon. Behind closed doors at the White House, the Wall Street Journal reported that Juncker warned Trump: "If you want to be stupid, I can be stupid as well."

Trump's base also remains unsatisfied. 

The American Soybean Association demanded “a longer-term strategy to alleviate mounting soybean surpluses and continued low prices, including a plan to remove the harmful tariffs.”

But Republican resistance may prove too little, too late, at least as far as this year's midterm elections go.

A new president's party almost always loses seats in the following midterms, and Democrats are now viewed as slight favorites to retake the House, despite the built-in advantage of gerrymandering in several key states. The Senate will be far more difficult: Democrats must flip at least two Republican-held seats while protecting vulnerable incumbents in states Trump won easily, including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

A national Quinnipiac poll released this week found Democrats leading Republicans on the generic congressional ballot by 12 points, up from a nine-point advantage only one month ago. In three key Midwestern states, a new NBC News/Marist poll found Democrats with a generic-ballot lead of 12 points in Minnesota, nine points in Michigan, and eight points in Wisconsin. The president’s job approval rating in both Michigan and Wisconsin, states he won narrowly in 2016, stands at a paltry 36 percent. It's only 38 percent in Minnesota, a state he came within 50,000 votes of winning in 2016. 


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