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Trump’s Party Problem

by AFP

Timothy A. Clary—AFP

U.S. president faces increasing criticism from fellow Republicans over administration’s missteps, controversial moves.

Donald Trump and his White House have come in for intense criticism in the U.S. president’s dizzying first weeks in office, and the rising sound of discord is not just coming from opposition Democrats.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and outside the Washington Beltway are increasingly venting their frustration and worry—sometimes publicly but more often among themselves—about the new administration’s missteps, speedy policy rollouts, abrasive tone and often tenuous relation to facts. “We shouldn’t be having these questions now” in the first month of a new presidency, said a Republican senator who requested anonymity so he could discuss the issue more freely. “We are concerned.”

In a dozen AFP interviews, lawmakers, party grandees and congressional staff have painted a picture of an administration struggling to get up to speed on various fronts, trampling on White House protocol, and acting hastily instead of with deliberation and prudence as they pivot away from the policies of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. The interviews were carried out shortly before explosive revelations in The New York Times that members of Trump’s campaign and other aides were in repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials prior to November’s election.

Among Republicans, strident accusations of incompetence have come from Senator John McCain. “It’s dysfunctional as far as national security is concerned. Who’s in charge? Who’s in charge!” an exasperated-looking McCain told reporters on Tuesday, after top Trump aide Michael Flynn resigned amid charges he discussed U.S. sanctions policy with Russia’s ambassador prior to the inauguration, then misled Vice President Mike Pence about the contacts. “Who’s making policy? Who’s making decisions? I don’t know of anyone outside of the White House that knows,” McCain said.

Trump repeatedly proclaimed he would “drain the swamp” in Washington and shake up the establishment. “I’m just doing what I said I would do,” he insisted on Monday, vowing to keep translating his campaign promises into White House action.

He has proven time and again that he will do things differently as president, refusing to tone down his Twitter talk, issuing sweeping immigration restrictions and then clashing with the judicial branch which blocked them, and filling his inner circle with controversial confidants like strategist Steve Bannon. And Trump has set his Republican Party on edge.

“Nobody’s freaking out, but they are seeking reassurance” from higher-ups that the White House is not stumbling into crisis, a Republican congressional aide said, reflecting on the mood among colleagues on Capitol Hill. Aides, House and Senate staffers and Republican operatives have huddled over drinks expressing hope that the new administration will “get it together,” the aide said.

Key posts, including ambassadorships, remain unfilled, and a common criticism is that the administration often appears to remain in combative campaign mode.

White House staffers are leaking like a punctured canteen, bringing internal discord to light and infuriating the president. “It’s an unusual time that we’re living at,” Senator Susan Collins said when asked how she views contentious aspects of the new Trump era. “It’s troubling,” she said of the Flynn fiasco.

Some lawmakers have chalked it all up to the teething problems of a new White House switching party hands, led by a president still defined by his mindset as a provocative and blunt-nosed business negotiator. “Any new president is entitled to some grace period as far as getting his administration together,” said congressman Peter King, who like Trump is from New York. “I would give him time to get it worked out. We can come back in a few months and take a look at it.”

Others are less forgiving. “These are not normal growing pains,” noted Republican strategist Rory Cooper, a former White House staffer under George W. Bush. “Most Republicans want the tweets to stop and for Trump’s staff to reduce the chaos emanating from their ranks,” he said.

A few Republicans are now flinching at Trump’s campaign promises. They balk at his plan for a wall on the Mexican border, arguing it would cost too much. And Trump’s call to “repeal and replace” Obama’s health care reforms is dividing Republicans.

“People you would expect to really rally around a Republican president are somewhat muted in their comments or defense,” said Republican strategist Brad Marston of FourTier Strategies. “I think there’s a sense that he’s probably biting off a little too much to chew.”

Not every Republican is perturbed by Trump’s debut, even if he antagonized Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto into cancelling a U.S. visit and reportedly lost his cool on a call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia. “Trump was just being Trump,” said Morton Blackwell, an influential conservative activist who recently met with the president in the White House.

And outside the political sphere, Trump’s base supporters remain “delighted” so far, particularly on policy direction, Blackwell said. “What we saw in the… campaign we’re likely to see during the administration,” he added. “Who would be surprised about that?”

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