Just a few short months ago, President Donald Trump publicly floated the idea that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) might have to step down due to his fecklessness.
The two had feuded repeatedly over the failure to repeal Obamacare and the Alabama Senate Republican primary. The relationship appeared in tatters.
On Wednesday afternoon, however, McConnell was there, standing next to Trump at the White House, toasting and heaping praise on the president for all his political successes.
“Let me just say, Mr. President, you made the case for the tax bill, but this has been a year of extraordinary accomplishment for the Trump administration,” McConnell gushed. “Thank you, Mr. President, for all you’re doing.”
The cordiality—or, critics say, obsequiousness—underscored the stark, newish reality of Republican politics. Trump may be considered uncouth in many establishment quarters. Some lawmakers may even refer to him as a cancer on the country and a child in the nation’s top office. But when push came to shove, Trump not only got his way and his votes, he got the lavish praise too.
“Establishment Republicans understand that they need to bear-hug President Trump for their own political survival,” Andy Surabian, a former White House official who continues to work closely with Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “At the end of the day this has to do with electability. You can’t get elected in the Republican Party today being opposed to Trump.”
“Better late than never,” Jeff Lord, a Trump ally and former CNN political contributor, said. “An exasperating thing for me during the campaign was that [Trump’s GOP critics] were describing someone I knew and they didn’t know... It was a caricature. The person they are now describing is exactly the person I got to know.”
This dynamic has never been on clearer display than over the past couple days, as the Republican Party passed a massive tax cut package crafted largely to benefit corporations and the upper income tiers. Many of the critical votes needed to get the bill through the Senate came from lawmakers who butted heads with Trump over the preceding weeks.
There was Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who once said his own party is in “denial” about Trump, who signed on to the bill despite being given nominal assurances that GOP leadership would push a separate legislative priority: legal protections for undocumented children that Trump himself had ended. And there was Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who once called the White House an “adult day-care center,” who put aside reservations over the bill’s hefty hit to the deficit to vote for it, despite lawmakers making no obvious fix to get the cost of the bill under control.
There were other lawmakers too who have been on-again-off-again Trump critics. Like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) whose vote on the tax bill was never really in doubt but who has become a prominent Trump cheerleader over the past few months after mocking him often on the campaign trail. And there was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The South Carolina senator spent the 2016 election saying that Trump’s nomination meant the GOP had gone “batshit crazy.” Graham now is a veritable Trump-whisperer, golfing with the president and defending his honor against a supposedly cruel news media.
An aide to Graham noted that the senator still calls out Trump when he feels he’s ideologically adrift, whether it be too much friendliness toward Russia or too much unwillingness to send American terror suspects to Guantanamo Bay. Other aides and GOP operatives were also quick to note that casting votes for a massive tax cut was squarely within the Republican Party’s DNA and hardly the type of thing done to curry favor with the president.
“I think some people are surprised to learn that Republicans really like cutting taxes and are largely unified when it comes to doing so. Even if that means putting other things aside to work with President Trump,” said Rory Cooper, a former Eric Cantor aide and a vocal #NeverTrumper. “Since the convention, most members resigned themselves to viewing the president as a helpful signatory, which allows them to compartmentalize the other stuff.”
But it wasn’t just votes that these lawmakers cast. Corker went on to say that he had gained a “newfound empathy” for Trump during the legislative process because of the way he, Corker, had been attacked over the bill. And by the time that lawmakers gathered at the White House to celebrate the bill’s passage, individual members seemed to be trying to one-up each other over who could heap the most praise on the president.
“I have to say that this is one of the great privileges of my life, to stand here on the White House lawn with the president of the United States, who I love and appreciate so much,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), among the most ebullient attendees. “We’re going to make this the greatest presidency that we’ve seen not only in generations, but maybe ever.”
Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a Trump surrogate, described the thick lathering of praise as something “better than laughable” and seemingly “contagious” among the attendees. “Trump’s like everybody else, he likes lots of praise,” Kingston added. “But something got in the air because I don’t believe he was keeping score [on who was praising him the most].”
Others found the spectacle slightly less amusing.
“It is infuriating,” said Tim Miller, a former RNC official and Jeb Bush campaign communications director who has routinely called out Trump. “I legitimately do not understand why we, the Republicans, could not pass tax reform without pathetic obsequiousness to Donald Trump… It is not as if Trump’s arm twisting of Senator Crapo is what got us across the finish line.”
Miller wasn’t quite done.
“There is this theory based in nothing that you need to massage Trump’s ego and be nice to him in order to get things done on the Hill... I honestly don’t see why they couldn’t have passed tax reform in the midst of impeachment hearings. I’m not advocating impeachment. But I don’t get why these two things couldn’t happen simultaneously,” he added. “It seems weird but is it any weirder than The Apprentice guy being the president? You’re laughing”... [we were]... “but I’m serious.”
Current and former Trump administration officials say they aren’t surprised that the GOP members of Congress have not only fallen in line but done so with outward joy. Ed Brookover, a former senior Trump campaign official, argued that the president’s agenda “has been very good for the American economy” and, therefore, it was logical that “Republicans rallied around” it. Jason Miller, a former senior communications adviser to the Trump campaign, suggested that GOP lawmakers were in awe of Trump’s political tenacity. “He wakes up and opens up the newspapers and gets complete buckets of negativity dumped on him every single day and he doesn’t back down at all,” Miller said.
Others, however, suggested a more cynical motivation, one not simply based on appreciation for the president’s gumption but the realization that flattery can go a long way. One GOP Senate aide told The Daily Beast that it was a common directive within the conference that Trump should be praised publicly as a means of keeping him in good spirits and largely in line with the party agenda. It’s also why, the aide said, usually mundane cabinet meetings had come to resemble “Dear Leader” sessions and why even foreign governments had turned presidential visits into other wordly political fairs.
“They will be writing the psychoanalysis for years,” the aide said. “But in a weird way I think some of it comes down to background. A guy or gal who goes through the ranks from state rep to the House to the Senate and Cabinet secretary carries their luggage a bunch of time. They’re going to hodunk towns and eating at waffle house and rubber chicken dinners. There is not a lot of glamour in that life. Trump comes from an entirely separate background. He comes from a reality TV background and owns his jet. For him the presidency is supposed to be the presidency depicted in the movies.”