By Dana Milbank
What would it take for Republicans to turn against Donald Trump?
Now, finally, we know.
For nearly three years, Republican lawmakers have stood with Trump, offering only isolated protest, through all manner of outrage. Disparaging Mexican immigrants. Videotaped boasts about sexually assaulting women. Alleging that his predecessor put a wiretap on him. Falsely claiming massive voter fraud. Racism directed at a federal judge. The firing of James B. Comey. Talk of women bleeding. A payoff to a porn actress over an alleged affair. A defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville. Support for Senate candidate Roy Moore despite allegations of child molestation. The guilty pleas of Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates and the indictment of Paul Manafort. The botched travel ban and bungled repeal of Obamacare. Insulting Britain and other allies. Attacks on the FBI and judiciary and attempts to fire the attorney general. Talk of African “shithole” countries. Questions about his mental stability. The lethargic hurricane response in Puerto Rico. The stream of staff firings and resignations and personal and ethical scandals, most recently Tuesday’s finding that Kellyanne Conway twice violated the Hatch Act.
Republican lawmakers were, by and large, okay with all that. But now Trump has at last gone too far. He has proposed tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. And the Republican Party is in an all-out revolt.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) fielded four questions at a news conference Tuesday morning and answered the same way four times: with a warning about the “unintended consequences” of Trump’s proposed tariffs.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) spoke Tuesday afternoon of “a high level of concern” and fear that “this could metastasize into a larger trade war.”
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn (Tex.), warned about “jeopardizing the economy.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), usually a Trump cheerleader, warned that it would be a “real mistake.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (Tex.) urgedTrump to “weigh carefully” what he’s doing.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) suggested a “scalpel not a sledgehammer.”
Rep. Kevin Yoder (Kan.), at a hearing Tuesday, warned Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that “retaliatory measures are already occurring.”
Rep. Jackie Walorski (Ind.) wrote to Trump to say a manufacturer in her district called off an expansion because of the threatened tariffs.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) went to the Senate floor to warn that “tariffs are big taxes” and said a company in Tennessee suspended a planned expansion because of the tariff threat. He read into the record a Wall Street Journal editorial calling the tariffs Trump’s “biggest policy blunder.”
The Republican criticism poured forth, from Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), from Reps. David Young (Iowa), Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), and even from new Fed Chairman Jerome H. Powell.
And it isn’t just criticism. GOP lawmakers are considering action, even though options are limited: attempting to block the tariffs with veto-proof legislation or as part of a must-pass bill, or denying Trump fast-track trade negotiating authority when it comes up for renewal. Republicans have nudged Trump in their direction before, on taxes and immigration. But never before has there been a full-scale rebellion.
The conventional analysis is that Republican lawmakers bend to Trump because he has the support of the party’s base. But that calculus does not apply here. The base is with Trump — a Pew Research Center poll last year found only 36 percent of Republicans have a positive view of trade agreements — but lawmakers are defying him anyway.
This, then, shows the extent to which the congressional GOP, despite Trump’s populist talk, has been a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America under Trump. Republicans are with Trump most of the time (that is, when he is cutting regulations and taxes on corporations and the wealthy) but against him on the rare occasions he is opposed by industry, or at least all industry that doesn’t make steel and aluminum.
These lawmakers know where their bread is buttered, and they must keep corporate contributors happy. Perhaps they also recognize that the economy is in a precarious state. Trump himself called it a bubble, and that bubble has been pumped up further with debt-financed tax cuts and spending stimulus. A trade war, or even a trade skirmish, could be most deflating.
This is why Republican lawmakers look the other way when presented with Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct, racial provocations, conflicts of interest, cowboy diplomacy and assaults on the rule of law. But slapping a tariff on foreign metals? That crosses the line.