By Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns
WASHINGTON – President Trump’s approval ratings have been nudging upward, and his party’s political standing is improving, but the president’s unceasing habit of making inflammatory and insensitive remarks is galvanizing opposition against him – especially from women – that could smother Republican momentum going into the midterm campaign.
Saturday was a case in point. In a Twitter post, Trump appeared to raise doubts about the entire #MeToo movement, a day after he had offered sympathy for a former aide accused of spousal abuse.
“Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” the president wrote on Twitter, adding: “There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”
On Friday, the president had jumped into the controversy over the former aide, Rob Porter, who is accused by two former wives of physical and emotional abuse, defending him and offering no denunciation even for the idea of assaulting women. Trump, who himself has been accused of sexual misconduct, focused instead on Porter, saying that he was enduring a “tough time.”
The president’s seeming indifference to claims of abuse infuriated Republicans, who were already confronting a surge of activism from Democratic women driven to protest, raise money and run for office because of their fervent opposition to Trump.
“This is coming, this is real,” Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said recently about the female-fueled wave of liberal energy.
Trump’s remarks illustrated a broader problem: Republican congressional leaders and strategists have pleaded with lawmakers and candidates to stay focused on economic growth and December’s tax cuts, a message they hope will be their salvation before the elections in November. But that may be little more than fantasy in a campaign that will turn more on the president’s conduct than any policy issue.
His comments on Friday, the first he had offered since images emerged of one of Porter’s former wives bearing a black eye, were the culmination of a week’s worth of politically ill-advised steps that suggest that the president and his lieutenants cannot stop themselves from blunting positive political momentum.
By the weekend, Trump’s State of the Union address, strong employment and wage figures as well as the onset of tax cuts seemed washed away by the latest White House controversy.
The frustration in the Republican political class is bursting forward.
“For members or anybody else who cares about keeping control of Congress, if you find yourself talking about anything but the middle-class tax cut, shut up and stop talking,” fumed Corry Bliss, who runs the primary House Republican super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund. “Any time spent on TV talking about anything but how we’re helping the middle class is a waste of time and does nothing to help us win in 2018.”
Republicans have grown accustomed to the president’s lack of discipline and inability to reliably carry a message. But operatives overseeing the midterm effort and some lawmakers facing difficult re-elections are growing more alarmed that Trump’s fixation on the Russia inquiry, personal slights and personality clashes inside and outside his White House are only encouraging his congressional and conservative news media allies to swerve off message.
The party has finally gotten some good signs. The president’s approval ratings have been inching up in recent polling, fewer voters are indicating a preference for a Democratic Congress and some polls show Trump starting to get more credit for the booming economy than former President Barack Obama.
But even as voters begin to see more take-home pay, companies add jobs and employees receive bonuses, their votes are not necessarily going to drift to the Republicans in November. Many Americans are still uncertain that they will benefit from the tax measure, Bliss conceded. He cited a wave of private polling and focus groups that his organization has conducted this year revealing much of the electorate to be skeptical that they would receive a tax cut from the bill, which was signed into law in December.
That is in part because of what mainstream Republicans describe as a destructive cycle of incentives: Trump reacts to Fox News segments about the Russia investigation or another controversy, encouraging more such coverage and prompting House conservatives from largely safe seats to make their own incendiary comments, which win them television invitations and attention from the president. Such notoriety might help those lawmakers in their deep red districts, but they do nothing for the party’s overall political standing.
Campaign veterans and Capitol Hill aides say part of the challenge, particularly in the House, is that many Republican lawmakers had until last year been in office only with a Democratic president and therefore are well practiced at oppositional politics but know little about trumpeting a positive message.
Party officials have for weeks sought to drive home to lawmakers and Trump how crucial it is that they sell the tax law, bluntly warning that it will take an ambitious campaign to transform the measure into an unambiguous political winner. Strategists have written memos for public consumption and published op-eds emphasizing the need to go on offense.
Senior lawmakers have used private meetings to implore the president and their colleagues to stay focused on taxes.
At a gathering in January at Camp David, House Republican leaders invoked the example of Obama to Trump, who is often eager to act differently than his predecessor.
The lawmakers told the president that Democrats suffered such deep losses in 2010 in part because Obama did not make a sufficient case for his economic stimulus measure, Republicans in attendance said.
This past week at a congressional Republican retreat in West Virginia, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the head of the House campaign arm, opened and closed his presentation to lawmakers with “three take-aways,” according to a Republican in attendance: “Be ready, sell tax reform and run a campaign.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, another member of the leadership, has even created a kit for lawmakers about how to stage district events to “tell the story of the tax cuts and jobs,” offering a “Gipper of the Week” award to Republicans who do top-flight communications works (the award: a jar of jelly beans, a favorite of Ronald Reagan’s).
David Winston, a veteran Republican pollster, made a presentation at the retreat arguing that many voters remained highly flexible in their views of the tax law, giving Republicans a chance – but so far, only a chance – to close the sale. But in an interview, Winston, who advises Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., warned that the party could not trust public opinion on the law to continue improving on its own.
“There’s a need to make people aware of what’s in the legislation,” Winston said. “There is a large portion of the electorate that is aware of it, but there’s probably a larger portion of the electorate that’s not.”