Never-Trump Senate Republicans Grapple With His Upset Victory
(Bloomberg) -- Don’t ask Senator John McCain about Donald Trump.
"I’m not talking about President-elect Trump. I will not talk about Donald Trump. Now look, tell all your friends, OK?" the Arizona Republican told reporters last week. "Do not ask me again about Donald Trump."
But a few days later, there was McCain, praising Trump’s choice for defense secretary, retired Marine General James Mattis. And other Senate Republicans who had been ardent Trump critics, including Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are trying to offer glimmers of praise.
The intra-GOP truce doesn’t seem likely to last for four, let alone eight, years. It could break down over immigration, where several senators are already laying out clear markers, or other issues, such as civil liberties or Obamacare.
If any Republican could hold the line against Trumpism, it might be McCain.
The 2008 GOP presidential nominee hasn’t budged on the areas where he breaks with Trump. The Arizona Republican still wants a comprehensive immigration overhaul allowing undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed other crimes to stay here, vows the U.S. won’t torture people again no matter what Trump has said, and thinks Trump’s plan to ditch the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a "disaster" that will help China. And there’s no one in Congress with a harsher view of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who once put McCain on a list of U.S. officials banned from Russia.
Last week, the self-styled maverick pledged to hold the administration accountable, even though he still doesn’t like questions that start with "Donald Trump."
"Well you can ask members of the Bush administration and they’ll tell you I called for the firing of the secretary of Defense. I’m too old to change," McCain said.
McCain’s close friend Graham has also been trying to coax Trump to change some of his hard-line positions on issues like immigration. Graham has urged Trump to deal with the conflict of interest between his businesses and running the country and criticized him for a baseless Tweet alleging millions of fraudulent votes.
An immediate concern is the fate of about 750,000 immigrants brought here illegally as children who received work permits and deportation relief from President Barack Obama starting in 2012.
Trump has vowed to terminate the executive order granting them legal protections, which could subject them to deportation to countries that many of them don’t remember.
Graham wants to quickly pass a bill allowing those people to have protection from deportation, and told reporters it would be an early test.
“These kids didn’t ask to be brought to this country, they were brought by their parents,” he said. “They came out of the shadows and said ‘here I am, here’s where I live’ and the president of the United States enticed them out of the shadows. From a Republican Party point of view, this is a very defining moment about who we are as a party.”
“This is a test for America, not just Donald Trump,” he added. ”This is who are we as a nation.”
Graham is joined by Flake, who also refused to back Trump, in part over his opposition to his immigration policies.
“We’re just trying to protect those kids,” Flake said. He pushed repeatedly during the campaign for Trump to renounce his comments about Mexicans being rapists, building a wall, banning Muslims from entering the U.S. and renegotiating the federal debt. But the senator has been subdued since the election.
“I obviously can’t speak for the president-elect, but he won. We’re moving on. Assume the best, look for the good and move on,” Flake said. “Let’s give him some time.”
Another early test will be an effort to pass a lightning-strike repeal of Obamacare in January, which will require the 52-member Republican majority in the Senate to stick together.
Another group of former Never-Trump senators is trying to move past the campaign, including Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of several Republicans who unendorsed Trump after the "Access Hollywood" tape on which he bragged about groping women. Early on, Gardner referred to Trump as a "buffoon."
"I’ve had several conversations with Trump and the Trump administration and look forward to working with them," said Gardner, who will head the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm for the 2018 cycle.
"Totally water under the bridge," said Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who also unendorsed Trump after the tape, in a recent interview. "I’m very excited," he said, particularly on energy issues.
Susan Collins of Maine, meanwhile, is advising Trump to reach out to Democrats and get things done in a bipartisan way, starting with dinners at the White House.
Rob Portman of Ohio said he is looking to work with the new administration on taxes and trade policy among other issues, and describes the party as "united" behind making Trump successful.
A few other Republicans could still give Trump some trouble ahead, including Ben Sasse of Nebraska. He penned an opinion piece in the Omaha World-Herald after the election saying he was rooting for Trump’s success, but he hasn’t been shy about tweeting his disagreements.
While a conservative, Sasse has been suspicious of executive overreach and recently tweeted his opposition to Trump’s call to criminalize flag burning. And he’s dismissed the idea of a dramatic increase in manufacturing jobs given irreversible trends toward automation. Last week, he declined to comment when asked how he’d handle a Trump administration.
And then there’s Mike Lee of Utah, who revealed after the election that he cast a protest vote for Evan McMullin, and has been hoping Trump will govern differently than he campaigned and eschew things like a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
He penned a Nov. 24 article hoping to pair Trump’s populism with conservative solutions, including sending as much power as possible to the states and avoiding authoritarianism.
That could be seen as a shot across the bow in case Trump wants to act on his own. Then again, Lee is on Trump’s list of 21 possible Supreme Court nominees.