It was among the most consequential weeks of President Donald Trump’s tenure: Across the country, health care workers began receiving a lifesaving coronavirus vaccine. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers neared a deal on economic relief aimed at averting a deeper recession. And Friday, federal regulators authorized a second vaccine.
Yet Trump was largely absent from those events. It was Vice President Mike Pence who held a call with governors Dec. 14 to hail a “medical miracle” and who received the Pfizer vaccine at week’s end on live television. Legislative leaders were the ones working late into the nights on a stimulus deal.
All the while, Trump was conducting a Twitter-borne assault on Republicans for not helping him overturn the election results, even warning Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, to “get tougher, or you won’t have a Republican Party anymore.” By the weekend, the president was considering naming a conspiracy theorist as special counsel to investigate voting fraud, for which there is no evidence, asking his advisers about instituting martial law and downplaying a massive hack his own secretary of state attributed to Russia.
Seldom has the leader of an American political party done so much to strike fear into the hearts of his allies but done so little to tackle challenges facing the country during his final days in office. Far from presenting the vaccine breakthroughs from Pfizer and Moderna as testaments to private-sector ingenuity and innovation — once a conservative creed — he was fixated on menacing Republicans who might dare to acknowledge Joe Biden as president-elect.
That duality in Trump’s behavior — acting as a bystander while other leaders answered a crisis and simultaneously raging at Republicans who have inched away from him — also amounts to a preview of Trump’s post-presidency.
He has shown no interest in shaping the debates that lay ahead for Republicans, in tending to the party’s electoral health or in becoming a champion of America’s recovery. Rather, he seems intent on using his political platform to wage personal vendettas and stoke a shared sense of grievance with the voters he has long cultivated as a fan base.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said the president’s fury blinded him to his last best chance to buff his legacy: visiting vaccine distribution sites and clinics to highlight the possibility of hope after nine months of national misery.
“The president could have made that the hallmark of his last days in office,” Romney said. “Instead, he’s seen as promoting conspiracy theories and evidence-free accusations of fraud, which lead to a color of a sore loser.”
Some Republicans see an upside ahead — especially those who have largely avoided Trump’s fury.
They believe the president’s departure might allow Republicans to return to some of the themes that proved effective in down-ballot races last month, while also depriving Democrats of their most dependable boogeyman. In that rosy vision, lawmakers might step gingerly in public to avoid Trump’s wrath but otherwise go about their business, assuming Trump’s focus will never linger on one matter for long, while they elevate the perceived excesses of the left.
“When Trump is no longer in office, there’s going to be less focus on personality and ‘What did he tweet today? What did he say today?’” predicted Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, adding, hopefully, that Democrats would soon struggle with internal divisions in a “Tea Party moment” akin to what Republicans faced a decade ago.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was even more succinct, arguing that the Democrats’ left wing would alienate moderate voters.
“Our problem is tone; their problem is policy,” Graham said of the two parties. “We’ve both got to overcome problems, but I like our chances better because we can act better, and it’s harder for them to legislate differently.”
Yet if that is the view from the lofty perch of the Senate, there is little evidence at the ground level of Republican politics that Trump and his divisive persona are receding as forces in the party. Indeed, Republicans have recently struggled to articulate what their party stands for other than fealty to Trump.
Trump never espoused a set of plans for his second term, and for the last four years no one else has achieved the stature to detail an affirmative vision for the party. The coronavirus relief negotiations have also exposed serious ideological rifts among Republicans about the role of government in aiding suffering Americans.
Many of Trump’s signature governing achievements — cutting taxes for businesses and the wealthy, weakening the Affordable Care Act and rolling back environmental regulation — have been unpopular with many moderate voters.
As apathetic as Trump can be about many parts of his job, some Republicans say they do not expect his grip to weaken on party affairs. Even if he is reduced somewhat in stature, they say, he is likely to remain the formidable figurehead of a personality cult.
Former Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who lost a Republican primary in 2018 after crossing Trump, said he saw little evidence that his party was looking to Trump and the White House for a governing vision. But, he said, the “fear factor” remained strong.
“The default on the Republican side still is the status quo, which is: People have learned to be very deferential to the president based on self-preservation,” Sanford said.
It is fitting that the split outlook on the party’s post-Trump future broadly falls along House and Senate lines.
In the same week that McConnell publicly acknowledged Biden had won and privately instructed his caucus to refrain from challenging the results on the Senate floor next month, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, declined to acknowledge the president’s defeat and did nothing to discourage a group of far-right lawmakers plotting a protest of Biden’s election in the House.
The House has long been more ideological than the Senate, in both parties. Every member of the Senate Republican leadership used their weekly news conference last week to welcome the arrival of the vaccine — and not one of them approached saying the word Trump.
House Republicans worry more than their Senate peers about Trump’s supporters and the threat they could pose in future primaries, especially if whipped up by Trump.
The two top House Republicans, McCarthy and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the minority whip, both signed onto the recent, failed lawsuit from Texas seeking to overturn the results of the election. They were joined by a majority of House Republicans but not one senator.
Trump’s commanding influence over many in the party has driven a number of House Republicans to retire in the last two election cycles. One of them, Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan, quit the party last week out of dismay about Republicans’ attacks on the election. Mitchell is the second lawmaker to leave the party during this session of Congress, after his fellow Michigander, Rep. Justin Amash.
Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., who lost a primary this year and is also contemplating leaving the party, said he believed much of the Republican caucus was cowed by Trump and would most likely remain that way. He estimated that about 60% of the lawmakers questioning the results of the election knew that their claims were nonsense.
“It seems like the constant fight in the Republican Party,” Riggleman said, “is trying to stop the lunatics from taking over the asylum.”
The strength of Trump’s hold on the party will be tested in the coming months in Virginia, where two of the party’s leading contenders for governor next year responded very differently to the Electoral College results. Kirk Cox, the former state House speaker, acknowledged Biden’s victory, while state Sen. Amanda Chase called for martial law.
Whether Trump intervenes in the Virginia race, how the Republican candidates approach him and what kind of response voters have to the soon-to-be former president may set the stage for the 2022 midterm elections, in which both parties’ fortunes may turn on the strength of the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
For now, many ambitious Republicans are glad to embrace the element of Trumpism that is most animating to the right: seizing on the most extreme ideas of the left. Such oppositional politics allows party leaders to draw attention away from Trump, reminds voters of what gives them pause about Democrats and has effectively become the adhesive binding Republicans together.
The GOP’s de facto platform — that the left has gone around the bend — was on display last week when a range of figures on the right, including two potential presidential candidates in 2024, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas, highlighted a report that San Francisco was considering stripping Abraham Lincoln’s name from one of its schools.
With millions of Americans at risk of losing unemployment benefits, though, most of the party’s congressional wing was focused last week on pandemic relief.
The final major legislative acts of Trump’s presidency may well arise not from the White House but from bipartisan coalitions on Capitol Hill that have filled a leadership vacuum in Washington. One such coalition, a loose group of centrists in the House and Senate, forged a framework for striking a deal on a winter relief package for individuals and businesses.
While Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has participated intermittently in the talks, the final agreement is expected to be settled by congressional leadership. On another matter, lawmakers in both parties have spurned Trump’s demands to use an annual military policy bill to strip technology companies from certain legal protections, raising the prospect that Trump’s final legislative fight could end in his first overridden veto.
Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist close to McConnell, said Trump was squandering a chance to define the end of his presidency.
“Whether he likes it or not, a bunch of positive stuff could happen as he leaves office,” Jennings said. “I would want maximum credit. He could sign all these things into law and be part of the process.”
Jennings said Trump’s invisibility during the vaccine rollout was especially baffling. “If it had been me, I would have had Air Force One sitting on the tarmac in Louisville waiting for that plane,” Jennings said, referring to the arrival of the Pfizer medication.
But Trump has always been most formidable when on the attack, against Republicans and Democrats alike. As one of his most prominent critics noted, if the president continues to play the role of troller-in-chief, he will cast a long shadow over the Republican Party.
“If he wants to have a very active role and be on TV every day and be the voice attacking the Biden administration, why, he’s going to set the vision of the Republican Party for the next four years and maybe beyond,” Romney said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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