When Barack Obama would make annual trips to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Democrats, the then-president routinely got an earful from his allies. As Adam Jentleson, a top aide to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, noted yesterday, members routinely “confronted” Obama – in a forceful but respectful manner – “with disagreements on many issues.”
With this in mind, when Donald Trump went to the Hill to meet with Senate Republicans yesterday, there was an opportunity for real fireworks. GOP senators have voiced quite a few concerns lately about, among other things, the White House’s criticisms of John McCain, Trump’s eagerness to help China’s ZTE, the president’s trade tariffs, and a variety of ongoing Trump-related scandals.
But given an opportunity to confront their party’s president, Senate Republicans balked. As NBC News’ report put it, “[T]he elephants in the room didn’t want to talk about the elephants in the room.”
Instead, after Trump spoke of shared legislative accomplishments, his confidence that Republicans can win in the upcoming midterm elections and the foreign policy victories he expects in the near future, there were just two questions – statements, really, according to Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. – about immigration and about how well Republicans have done with power in Washington.
What about the questions on McCain, China, trade, and Trump’s scandals? There weren’t any.
What’s more, while these meetings traditionally include some version of marching orders from a president to his legislative allies, Trump evidently didn’t have any meaningful instructions for the Senate Republican majority, either. The GOP officials appear to have spent an hour reflecting on how impressed they are with their own awesomeness.
Some of the problem may have been practical. Politico noted that senators struggled to get a word in edgewise.
Trump showed up to the Senate for a rare confab with GOP senators and spoke for nearly an hour, essentially uninterrupted…. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said he wanted to bring up the White House aide’s disparaging comment about McCain but wasn’t given the opportunity.
“There was no time. There were two questions. He spoke for a long time. All of us had our hands up ready to ask questions but ran out of time,” Flake said.
And what about the two questions the president was willing to answer? Why didn’t Republican senators use the opportunity to press Trump on areas of concern? “That’s not what we do in those meetings,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said after the gathering.
Perhaps not, but maybe it should be? Complaining about Trump’s antics in tweets or in television interviews is one thing, but asking him to explain himself in face-to-face meetings is obviously something else. Senators who are willing to do the former, but recoil from the latter, end up looking quite weak.