Republican senators said Thursday that a nameless Trump administration official’s op-ed criticizing the president would backfire by emboldening Trump and proving to his strong supporters that the establishment is seeking to stop his agenda.
The anonymous New York Times column published Wednesday described a culture of “quiet resistance” toward the president within the White House, with aides subtly ignoring or blocking his decisions when they believe him to be acting dangerously.
It caused a political firestorm and drew the president’s immediate ire, with Trump tweeting that it was “GUTLESS” and demanding that the Times “turn him/her over to government at once.”
Yet senior GOP lawmakers rejected the idea that the op-ed would damage Trump, insisting instead that it would help him during the midterms and in the 2020 presidential election. They argued that the op-ed underscored the president’s assessment that the establishment is seeking to block his agenda with tactics that do not appeal to average voters.
“If he wins in 2020, a lot of people are going to go nuts. But I think things like this help him. It reinforces the notion this place is a cesspool and if you try to change the place, the swamp creatures come and get you. It actually helps him,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “In South Carolina, when the New York Times speaks, most people don’t listen.”
Asked whether internal dissent in the White House concerned him, Graham, who has recently become one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, said: “I don’t know how deep it is. Trump can be a handful, right, but the bottom line is that people around him are making him a successful president. It’s a collaboration that results in good policy.”
Other Republicans cast the author of the op-ed as a renegade whose anonymous status undercut any credibility.
“The intention is to damage the president, for everyone to think he’s such a bad guy,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.). “All I thought when I first saw it is it actually has the effect of helping the president. People are going to look at that and go, ‘Worse-case scenario there’s someone who’s a turncoat in there.’ ”
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) agreed that anonymous sourcing would alienate voters: “Up here, anonymity is very common among the cultured, cosmopolitan, D.C. insider crowd who live in the condos with the high ceilings and the important art on the walls. It’s common currency up here.”
“To the average American,” he added, “their attitude is: ‘If you’re going to make an allegation like that, have the oranges to put it on the record. Look the person in the eye, tell them what you think. Don’t do it anonymously.’ It can hurt journalism more than the president.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said an anonymous op-ed had no credibility.
“I think I want to know who’s saying what before I make any judgment,” Grassley said.
The anonymous account was published a day after details of a forthcoming book by Bob Woodward, “Fear,” painted a similar portrait of the White House, with many officials flouting Trump’s orders.
The op-ed’s publication fueled speculation about its source, and on Thursday morning a stream of senior administration officials came forward to deny that they had written the column, among them Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Many GOP responses fit a familiar pattern of the Trump presidency, with Republicans rebuffing criticism of Trump to point to his record. “My approach on these things is to ignore the political circus and focus on substance,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). “And on substance, we’re getting an enormous amount accomplished for the American people.”
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the op-ed highlighted loyalty issues among staffers more than Trump’s shortcomings.
“I don’t really know what’s going on in the White House . . . but it seems to me from outside it’s open-ended down there, that there’s no confidentiality and not a lot of loyalty down there with a lot of people,” he said. “Whoever the president is, they need loyalty.”
Some Democratic lawmakers agreed that the controversy would harden Trump’s views about those seeking to block his agenda but disagreed that it would boost his popularity.
“Everything makes him mad. Everything makes him angry. Everything makes him turn inward, all the criticism,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “Yes, it emboldens his view that the world’s out to get him. But over time his base is shrinking.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), an outspoken critic of Trump, said the account would have no effect on either party, because voters already knew the nature of the president’s temperament: “I think people inside the White House have understood the situation from Day One. . . . Nothing new has occurred. Nothing.”