WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST)- A growing number of congressional Republicans expressed exasperation Friday (Oct 18) over what they view as President Donald Trump's indefensible behaviour, a sign that the president's stranglehold on his party is starting to weaken as Congress hurtles toward a historic impeachment vote.
In interviews with more than 20 GOP lawmakers and congressional aides in the past 48 hours, many said they were repulsed by Trump's decision to host an international summit at his own resort and incensed by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's admission - later withdrawn - that US aid to Ukraine was withheld for political reasons. Others expressed anger over the president's abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria.
One Republican, Francis Rooney of Florida - whose district Trump carried by 22 percentage points - did not rule out voting to impeach the president and compared the situation to the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.
"I'm still thinking about it, you know?" Rooney said of backing impeachment. "I've been real mindful of the fact that during Watergate, all the people I knew said, 'Oh, they're just abusing Nixon, and it's a witch hunt.' Turns out it wasn't a witch hunt. It was really bad."
The GOP's rising frustration is a break from the past three years, when congressional Republicans almost uniformly defended Trump through a series of scandals that engulfed the White House. There's now a growing sense among a quiet group of Republicans that the president is playing with fire, taking their loyalty for granted as they're forced to "defend the indefensible," as a senior House Republican said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.
A few Republicans are starting to say they flat-out won't do it anymore - particularly the president's choice of his Trump National Doral Miami golf resort for next year's Group of Seven summit of world leaders, a selection that will benefit him financially.
"You have to go out and try to defend him. Well, I don't know if I can do that!" steamed a frustrated Republican Representative Mike Simpson. "I have no doubt that Doral is a really good place - I've been there, I know. But it is politically insensitive. They should have known what the kickback is going to be on this, that politically he's doing it for his own benefit."
To be sure, Republican leadership in the House and Senate - and many rank-and-file GOP lawmakers - are still firmly behind Trump, who remains immensely popular with the party base. While several have criticised the president over policy, such as the withdrawal of US forces from northern Syria, they have argued against impeachment.
On Friday, Trump's top allies continued to defend him, playing down the Doral announcement and doing damage control for Mulvaney's blunder, in which their former House colleague contradicted Trump's "no quid pro quo" talking point and admitted that the president had withheld nearly US$400 million (S$545 million) in military aid to force Ukraine to pursue an investigation that would benefit him politically.
Hours after the comments, Mulvaney sought to walk back his remarks.
On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, criticised Trump's Syria decision in an op-ed in The Washington Post, just days after 129 House Republicans backed a resolution condemning the president's move.
"Withdrawing US forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake," wrote McConnell, who rarely criticises Trump and never mentioned the president's name in the op-ed. "It will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances."
Meanwhile, several GOP lawmakers have reached out to White House officials to urge Trump to reconsider his Doral decision, which they worry smacks of corruption, according to GOP officials familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.
At the very least, they're pressing Trump to publicly commit to hosting the international leaders free, to avoid any appearance that he's using his office to enrich himself.