Hill GOP frustration boils over Trump’s refugee order
WASHINGTON (CNN) — After a weekend of simmering, the frustration on Capitol Hill among Republicans is starting to boil over.
At issue isn’t the intent behind President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending the US refugee program and barring entry for individuals from seven countries deemed “terror prone.” On that, most broadly agree. But it is about just about everything else.
Aides and lawmakers, in conversations with CNN, have pointed to sloppy drafting of the order itself and the poor communications plan to accompany the rollout as serious problems.
But the biggest issue for lawmakers is the lack of consultation with the key GOP players on Capitol Hill. It’s a development that could have wide-ranging repercussions for a new administration that needs Republicans in both chambers to coalesce behind their wide-ranging — and audacious — and legislative agenda.
Throughout the past few weeks, top Republicans including Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have praised the White House for its efforts to coordinate on a series of big ticket items, from Cabinet nominations and the looming Supreme Court pick to the in-the-weeds detail of tax reform. Vice President Mike Pence has been a regular presence on Capitol Hill, and twice last week lawmakers trekked to the White House to sit down with the president. The relationship is crucial. The legislative battles ahead, including on health care and tax reform, are expected to be lengthy and, at points, extremely partisan. That makes keeping the lawmakers they’ll need to enact that agenda happy all the more important. This weekend marked a clear break in that effort.
The frustration was obliquely mentioned by several high-ranking Republicans in critical or non-plussed statements by the end of the weekend. But the anger about the process only grew Monday morning, when several Trump administration officials said the rationale for not looping in the relevant leadership and committee staffers until the last minute — if they brought them in at all — was national security.
“There was a very short period of time in which we had something to execute that ensures that the people of the United States were safe,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on MSNBC. “What happened if we didn’t act and somebody was killed?”
Similar explanations were echoed by Stephen Miller, the White House policy director who drafted much of the executive order, and Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser and counselor to the president throughout the morning.
“That’s an absurd, half-baked excuse, and it clearly shows these guys are just winging it,” said one well-placed GOP aide. “The last time we publicly debated a big counterterrorism screening change in Congress, terrorists didn’t ‘flood the country’ before we passed it into law.”
The aide warned that their current position will only make things more difficult going forward.
“If that’s their approach going forward in terms of engaging the Hill on national security issues, then they’re going to find out that the results are more than just a weekend of bad press,” the aide said.
The not so subtle implication: keep this posture and your own party isn’t going to defend the White House. A growing number of Republicans from both chambers have spent the weekend expressing frustration about the whole way this went down. There is a feeling, according to these aides, that the White House is going out of its way to damage relations on Capitol Hill with the very lawmakers they need to enact their national security agenda.
The White House, for its part, has maintained that the proper lawmakers and staff were not only looped in, but involved in the drafting.
“Everyone who needed to be consulted was consulted,” Spicer said Monday morning.
GOP lawmakers criticize rollout
But Republican aides said repeatedly over the weekend that the assertion just wasn’t true. The lawmakers themselves have backed up that position in their statements.
GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who criticized the proposal in general, also attacked how it came to be, saying “such a hasty process risks harmful results.”
“You have an extreme vetting proposal that didn’t get the vetting it should have,” Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said on CNN’s State of the Union.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, one of the few lawmakers to issue a public statement in support of the executive order, was forced to send a second statement Sunday night addressing the rollout problems.
“In the future, such policy changes should be better coordinated with the agencies implementing them and with Congress to ensure we get it right — and don’t undermine our nation’s credibility while trying to restore it,” he said.
The lack of coordination became clear just hours after the executive order was released. Even the general lack of supportive statements from rank and file GOP lawmakers Friday was a direct result of their lack of involvement in the process, according to several aides.
“We had no buy in here,” a senior GOP aide said. “Why are we going to put ourselves out there when they didn’t even think we deserved to know about this?”
Throughout the course of the weekend several aides reached out to CNN unsolicited to express their frustration — and try to get answers on the actual policy itself. Yet most we’re consciously trying to hold their fire publicly.
It was the public explanations from the White House, starting with the claim lawmakers were looped in and concluding with the assertion that they couldn’t be looped in because for national security reasons, that led several to express their discontent.
“They’re not running a campaign anymore,” the aide said. “They’re running the US government. And they need to own up to mistakes or prepare for a much bumpier road.”