Trump’s action-packed first week

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 5-

This week:

  • Trump’s relationship with congressional GOP gets its first test
  • First special House election scheduled for April
  • Will Republicans draft Peyton Manning?

Trump administration

During an action-packed first week in office, President Trump built up considerable momentum.

He signed his first law (granting James Mattis a waiver to serve as Defense Secretary), formally nominated his cabinet, and issued a number of orders. These included reinstatement of the Mexico City policy (barring taxpayer funding of abortion groups overseas), an order to begin work on his wall (which had been authorized by Congress last decade), and an order to punish sanctuary cities — i.e., jurisdictions that deliberately protect convicted criminal aliens from deportation.

Things were going fairly well, especially given the propensity of the news media to make everything related to Trump into a controversy. Even the cancellation of initial talks with Mexico’s president seemed like only a minor setback.

Then on Saturday, Trump hit his first genuine controversy. This is not the place to consider the merits of his Friday evening executive order temporarily banning most entries to the U.S. by nationals from seven war-torn nations. But from a political perspective, it was his first action that visibly tested his relationship with congressional Republicans, who had almost uniformly defended him up to that point. The result appeared to be that, on the whole, they will go along with the more restrictive policy Trump campaigned on, but with objections to some of the details.

Trump is not your average Republican. And this will be an important theme going forward in his presidency: To what extent are Republicans united or divided, and on which issues? And is it the sort of bitter disagreement that creates a party civil war, or is it something within the family?

Although the congressional leadership stood by Trump’s travel order without any deviation, several among the GOP rank and file objected. Nearly all of them (and this is important to our theme) still supported his policy of “extreme vetting” or limiting entry from those specific countries, which had been singled out in a law that President Obama had signed. The objection was to the slapdash way in which top aides appeared to have drafted the order, without input from the agencies that would be enforcing it.

There is some irony here: This may have been a reaction to press leaks from within the bureaucracy of other draft orders. But the result was that this order created unintended consequences for many people traveling over the weekend, including Iraqis who had helped U.S. forces during the war there and were granted status in the U.S. for their own protection. 

The Left latched on to this and launched major protest rallies at several airports. The disagreements between Trump and congressional Republicans, though, was more subtle. The relationship is one to watch carefully. The two need one another for the various goals they have set — confirming Trump’s cabinet, repealing Obamacare, repealing Obama-era rules and executive actions, and (beginning this week) confirming at least one Supreme Court justice and possibly more.

There is no question that immigration law gives the president great latitude in excluding foreigners who wish to enter the U.S. This is why most of Trump’s order survived its initial judicial scrutiny by an Obama-appointed federal judge in Brooklyn. The judge stayed the order only as it affects those who had already been granted permission to enter the country.

Based on comments since from high-ranking Trump administration figures, the order will not apply to permanent U.S. residents going forward, the specific objection that most Republicans had raised. But it remains in force with respect to new admissions from the countries in question.

During his presidential campaign, Trump demonstrated mastery when it came to riding out controversies like this one, that seemed like they would be extremely damaging to him. Every indication is that he intends to do this again now. His winning tactic was always to move quickly to the next thing — so quickly that nothing negative could linger for too long. That may be part of the rationale behind his decision to move up his announcement of a Supreme Court pick to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

We are about to get a first hint as to whether Trump remains as bulletproof within the Oval Office as he proved to be outside of it as a candidate.

House 2017

Kansas-4: The confirmation of Rep. Mike Pompeo, R, as CIA director opens the way for what will likely be the first special House election of 2017, on April 11. This seat leans heavily Republican, and 126 party delegates will choose the GOP candidate in the February 9 district caucus.

The most prominent Republicans expressing interest in being nominated are former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R, who gave up the same seat to run for Senate unsuccessfully in 2010, and state Treasurer Ron Estes, R. Both identify as conservatives.

Governor 2018

Kansas: Many believed that U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R, had been the person best able to unite Kansas Republicans. The long-running civil war between conservatives and moderates has reached an intensity recently unlike anything in the last decade. Her decision therefore not to run for governor in 2018 — or for anything else — comes as a gut-punch for the party currently standing behind America’s least popular governor, Sam Brownback.

Republicans are firmly in control of state government, with supermajorities in both houses of the legislature. Yet even as Trump romped to victory in their state, they lost 12 state House seats and one state Senate seat in November. During the primary season, 14 moderate Republican challengers had ousted conservative incumbents (eight in the House and six in the Senate). This was blowback from recent elections, in which conservatives, with Brownback’s help, had ousted moderates.

Republicans on both sides of that divide could jump into the race. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who had been in the running for a post in the Trump administration, is one prominent name among many who could potentially jump in.

Conservatives are on the back foot in Kansas mostly because Brownback’s tax reform is widely blamed for the state’s ongoing budget problems. If Democrats find a credible candidate for governor, they have a real if not overwhelming chance of a pickup here.

Ohio: Much like the earlier race for state chairman, the Republican primary for governor in the Buckeye State looks like it’s becoming a proxy battle between the forces loyal to term-limited Gov. John Kasich and President Trump.

According to a (probably on purpose) leaked memo, Attorney General (and former U.S. Senator until 2006) Mike DeWine appears likely to become the candidate of the Kasich side. Moreover, Team Kasich views Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor as the likely candidate of the Trump side of the state party, after Taylor helped Trump’s favored candidate for state chairman defeat a Kasich ally. However, there are other potential challengers to DeWine, including Secretary of State Jon Husted and Metro Cleveland-area Republican Rep. Jim Renacci.

Democrats’ hopes are mostly pinned on Rep. Tim Ryan, whose brief run for Minority Leader against Nancy Pelosi may have been intended to boost his name recognition in preparation.

Senate 2018

This week, as part of our continuing early survey of Senate races, we look at two more of Republicans’ best pickup prospects. Next week we will begin our look at states where Republicans are on defense.

Indiana: Sen. Joe Donnelly, D, won in 2012 with a national wind at his back against a Tea Party opponent who made a fatal error in a late debate.

He’ll have to run for re-election in a midterm year, and in a state that has become even more Republican than it used to be. Indiana was especially supportive of President Trump. The decisive defeat of former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh in a presidential year does not bode well for a much lower-profile Democrat running in the state without Bayh’s famous name and pedigree.

Barack Obama (in 2008), Donnelly, and the recently defeated education superintendent Glenda Ritz have been the only Democrats to win statewide races in the Hoosier State since Bayh’s last easy Senate victory in 2004. Republicans swept the statewide constitutional offices in 2016 and have an iron grip on the legislature. The state’s right-to-work law has not resulted in massive losses in union membership, but it has weakened the unions politically to the point that Democrats are the weakest they’ve been since at least the early 1980s or possibly the 1950s, depending on how you measure it.

Still, with 2014 as a clear exception, Republicans don’t have a great track record when it comes to defeating incumbent senators, especially when a Republican president is in the White House. A lot comes down to whom the Republicans decide to nominate. Rep. Luke Messer, R, is reportedly interested, but he would by no means be the only credible challenger.

And then there are some just plain outside-the-box ideas about this. Peyton Manning, anyone?

Missouri: If she is not the most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent, Claire McCaskill, D, is probably a close second. In 2012, her operation deftly manipulated a contested three-way GOP primary and she successfully helped Republican Rep. Todd Akin, the weakest potential opponent, win the nomination. She probably won’t have that luxury this time.

Republican Rep. Ann Wagner, who represents the Saint Louis suburbs, already seems poised to challenge her, having given up two House leadership positions in preparation. Democrats put trackers on Wagner during last year’s election (she faced token opposition) in full expectation of this.

Wagner would be a very formidable challenger in a state that has become much more reflexively Republican since it first elected McCaskill over former Sen. Jim Talent, R, in 2006. McCaskill is currently the only Democrat elected statewide (the Democratic auditor is an appointee). You have to go all the way back to the early 1990s to find the last time there was only one.

However, McCaskill is in a weak enough position that other Republicans, including former Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, central Missouri U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler and others might consider a go at it as well.