In just two weeks since taking the oath, Donald Trump has taken over Capitol Hill—his presence is felt everywhere.
Though his presence hasn’t necessarily been helpful.
Efforts to move to substantive policy debates have been stymied, frustrating leaders who seem to now be spending the bulk of their time deflecting questions about the errant president, defending his new executive orders or watching over their shoulders to make sure they don’t offend the naked emperor.
And, make no mistake—he’s watching.
Trump and his allies have taken a more hands on approach than previous administrations in dealing with the nation’s legislative branch, which is alarming ethics watchdogs, Democrats and even some Republicans.
None are more affected by Trump’s erratic behavior than Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan’s a wonk who wants to transform America’s tax system and revamp Obamacare in the GOP’s image. Instead in his weekly press conference on Thursday he had to deflect questions about Trump’s latest embarrassing tirade against Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over an Obama-era agreement to accept a measly 1,250 refugees.
“Australia is a very central ally. They are and they’ll continue to be,” he told reporters before getting a question about Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Apprentice. “I’m not going to comment on this stuff.”
Ryan may have been able to laugh off that question, but the Trump-sized stone that promises to hang around his neck for the next four years only seems to be getting heavier as the days roll on.
Party leaders across Capitol Hill were blindsided last Friday when Trump unveiled his controversial executive order to temporarily ban immigrants from seven majority Muslim nations from entering the U.S.
“We were briefed on the contents of it as it was being rolled out,” Speaker Ryan told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. While he now backs the executive order, the episode pulled the veil back on congressional and White House relations, and Trump, at least for now, is in the driver’s seat.
It turns out much of the controversial order was written by staffers from the House Judiciary Committee who reportedly had to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to work with the White House.
That’s left Republican leaders on the defensive all week, because the staffers never informed the top GOP congressional brass what they were doing and the White House in turn never thought to loop congressional leaders in on their expansive plan.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte had to fall on the sword for his party this week amidst the embarrassment the surprise executive order cost the party.
“It’s commonplace for Republican and Democratic staff to lend their expertise to presidential transition teams,” Goodlatte said at the National Press Club in answer to a question posed by The Daily Beast.
He refused to answer a question about whether his staff signed non-disclosure agreements, even after being chased down the hall of the press club by 10 or so reporters who sought a simple “Yes” or “No” from the powerful chairman.
Critics argue his office shattered the sacred constitutional mandate that power be separated between Congress and the White House. The ethics watchdog the Campaign for Accountability called on the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether the staffers broke any laws or internal House rules in crafting the order at the behest of the White House. Democrats also seized on the unforced error.
“Why would I look at Goodlatte as anything other than as a pawn of the president of the United States, if his staff has already written the legislation that we’re supposed to be considering? That’s bad,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told The Daily Beast. “People expect there to be checks and balances in their government. This is not a dictatorship—at least not yet—and he’s not Dear Leader to which we all bow.”
Nothing seems to be too small for Trump himself to weigh in on via Twitter, and nothing seems to be sacred to the new administration, like the notion of separation of powers. That’s unsettling some conservatives.
But the puppet master should have stayed behind the curtain, or at least in his own white box down the street, because even some Republicans who agreed with the thrust of the executive order voiced displeasure over having congressional aides working behind the scenes for the White House.
“I think, generally speaking, that the branches need to do their own thing,” Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) told The Daily Beast. “They need to communicate with one another, but we’re separate branches for a reason. And we should remain separate and we should be vigilant in protecting our prerogatives as a House and the Senate.”
Other Republicans raised concerns over the potential that White House officials purposefully went over senior lawmakers and policy professional’s heads by using young, inexperienced Hill staffers to do their political bidding.
“To me the troubling part is that the executive order was not vetted with the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Department of State and the Department of Defense,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told The Daily Beast. “That to me is the bigger issue.”
It’s not all bad news.
Since capturing the White House, Vice President Mike Pence has become a regular at the Capitol—he even got a new office on the House side of the Capitol on top of his office for being President of the Senate.
Lawmakers have welcomed his presence, particularly since Pence once walked the halls as a congressman giving him special insight into the unique pressures of their jobs.
Every Tuesday the silver haired VP arrives at Capitol Hill flocked by an entourage of young staffers, military aides and enough Secret Service agents to take out a third world army.
Over his eight-year tenure, now retired VP Joe Biden rarely came to the Capitol, leaving most of the nitty gritty details of policy making to the nation’s lawmakers. But, much like his Republican predecessor, Dick Cheney, who regularly sat in on Senate Republican policy meetings, Pence is at the Capitol to keep congressional Republicans on the same page as Trump and his team.
“He’s very very helpful. He comes and talks about what their plans are,” Sen. John McCain (R-AR) told The Daily Beast. “I know that it helps to have vice presidents of your own party to come over and have lunch with you.”
Pence even escorted Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch to his first meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but Trump stole the spotlight.
While Gorsuch did his traditional, grueling round of get-to-know-you-chats in lawmaker’s offices, Trump sent a signal to McConnell and other Senate Republicans: He once again prodded them to disband the upper chamber’s long-standing filibuster rule by employing the so-called nuclear option, which would allow Gorsuch to be confirmed by a simple majority.
"If we end up with that gridlock I would say, ‘if you can, Mitch, go nuclear,'" Trump told reporters on Wednesday. "Because that would be an absolute shame if a man of this quality was put up to that neglect."