For more than four years, Republicans on Capitol Hill woke up every morning in the knowledge that, whatever they did, Donald Trump could turn their entire day upside down with a single tweet.
Now, with a far more predictable and laconic president, GOP lawmakers who spent years miraculously not having seen the latest tweet or just having no comment are once again finding their voice.
Just take Wednesday morning.
House Republicans held a press conference criticizing President Joe Biden’s immigration policy. Meanwhile, 40 lawmakers signed a joint letter to the White House accusing the administration of “unlawful” moves at the border.
These GOP messaging ploys warranted cameras, news articles, and prime placement in the Beltway’s most-read newsletters. And instead of ducking questions about the latest Trump outrage, Republicans were on the offensive, lambasting Biden at every opportunity.
Most Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill thought Trump would still drive the daily news cycles from Mar-a-Lago. But two months removed from office, the ex-president is locked out of the White House and, maybe more importantly, his Twitter account. On top of losing his favorite medium, he’s largely avoided interviews, save a Fox News interview he did by phone on Tuesday and another Fox interview in February. When he does weigh in, it’s through his personal office—almost always to settle political scores, not to shape the policy discussion.
That doesn’t mean Trump isn’t still the leader of the GOP. It will take years for Republicans to shake Trump—if they ever do. But in the halls of Congress, where reporters once hounded GOP lawmakers to respond to Trump’s latest unhinged missive, there is now a news void. And Republicans can already feel it.
“I get more airtime than I used to,” Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a top-ranking Republican in the chamber, said Trump’s tweets “absolutely” used to suck the air out of the room. “It would happen regularly,” he said.
Cornyn added that Republicans don’t have to respond as much to tweets. “So I guess, in that sense, it’s a little bit easier,” he said. “But it's always a hard thing to do when you have 50 diverse and independent individuals.”
Those 50 GOP senators Cornyn referenced are a fractious bunch—an often unruly collection of big personalities in a small room. But, being in the minority, it’s far easier to coalesce against the opposition’s policies rather than rallying behind your own. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) argued recent Democratic considerations, like changing the legislative filibuster, would “get us all unified on a message.”
“Probably our most important message person right now is either Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi,” Blunt said. “Because that's what's going to produce the unifying message for us.”
The reality of a political space absent Trump, however, isn’t entirely positive. Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) spoke on Wednesday about the need for Republicans to not become complacent as just an opposition party.
“When it comes to the two biggest issues, health care and climate, we've got to be offering solutions,” Braun said. “And if we don't do that, I think we'll be outmaneuvered again.”
A GOP Senate aide also described to The Daily Beast the dual sides of Trump’s messaging. He may have had a boundless ability to derail their best-laid plans—but he also had an unparalleled ability to vault anything to the top of the national conversation. When that aligned with the congressional GOP’s agenda, it was a powerful force multiplier. When it didn’t, which was often, it was a major headache.
This GOP aide added that the party now has more control over its agenda—and it doesn’t have to allow for chaos.
That chaos seemed to take over most days of the Trump presidency, but take just one day as an example. On June 9, 2020, Senate Republicans planned to spend the afternoon talking about a sweeping conservation bill and a GOP version of police reform legislation in response to George Floyd’s death. They’d lined up a succession of floor speeches, plus talking points on police reform for when GOP leaders went before reporters for their weekly press conference.
But Trump had other plans. That morning, he tweeted a conspiracy theory that an elderly man, brutally assaulted on tape by police in Buffalo during a protest, was somehow linked to “antifa.” Trump’s comment became the news. And as much as Republicans wanted press for their conservation bill, a top election year priority for some senators, as well as their police legislation, no one wanted to touch Trump’s tweet.
“I don’t comment on the tweets,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told reporters, echoing most of his colleagues. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), at the time the majority leader, also wanted no part of it. The GOP police reform legislation and their conservation bill—The Great American Outdoors Act—did not receive much ink that day.
Not having to worry about Trump’s erratic behavior and words does not mean, however, that Republicans have mastered communications.
In fact, Democrats don’t seem to think the GOP has improved its messaging much at all in Trump’s absence.
“With Trump, it was chaos,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a progressive who often makes the rounds on Fox News. “But there was still an energy and passion behind it. Whereas now, I think there's kind of a void.”
Khanna pointed to the GOP response to Biden’s signature achievement so far: the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.
Republicans have struggled to find a convincing line of opposition to the popular legislation. They’ve argued it both doesn’t do enough, and does too much. They’ve argued it was too partisan, while acting in a completely partisan manner themselves—flatly opposing direct stimulus that Trump himself supported.
As Khanna said Wednesday, “I think they miscalculated.”