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Are Anti-Trump Republicans Really Anti-Trump?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Today’s topic: If you’re a Republican elected official, what qualifies you as anti-Trump?

Why are we talking about this? Well, there are plenty of GOP senators — Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, John McCain, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, etc. — who have been critical of the president but haven’t necessarily done much about it legislatively. So many people on the left call the whole narrative that they’re standing up to Trump BS.

So, to start us off: How much do you think these elected Republicans are doing to restrain Trump?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Well, they weren’t doing very much at first. Then more signs of resistance emerged over the summer.

In some ways, we’re still waiting for the pivotal tests, though.

What if Trump fires special counsel Bob Mueller, who’s investigating his campaign and potential Russian collusion? What if he pardons Jared Kushner? What if he tries to appoint to his Cabinet someone who’s an obvious hack?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The Russia sanctions bill was significant in that Congress passed it despite administration objections. The hearing with fired FBI Director James Comey was too. So was prominent GOP senators basically all-but-ordering the president not to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Republicans, particularly in the Senate, are doing more to resist Trump than the liberal conventional wisdom seems to hold.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Yeah, you are seeing some more outward signs of resistance. You have both Flake and Corker not running for re-election in order, it seems, to be able to critique Trump to their fullest ability. And just this week, McCain put out this tweet:

Now, do those count? Otherwise, I think the Russia bill was the first step, so I concur with Mr. Bacon.

natesilver: Wait — so Flake and Corker not running for re-election is a sign of resistance?

Not sure I buy that, Enten.

harry: I see it that way. Here’s why: Yes, they didn’t run, probably in part because they thought they might lose. That’s especially the case for Flake. But they could have decided to change course. They could have sucked up to Trump. Instead, they chose not to run and to criticize the president.

perry: If you think Trump will go down as the worst president in modern U.S. history and that he breaks lots of important norms along the way, then they are still not doing nearly enough. If you grade them based on their deep desire to 1. get re-elected, 2. please the Fox News base, and 3. get tax cuts and conservative judges, then the level of resistance in the GOP that we’re seeing seems more significant, with Collins/Corker/Flake/McCain at the more resisting end of the spectrum.

harry: I wonder if any of them think Trump is the worst president.

natesilver: Well, Flake was probably going to lose anyway. But Corker is popular enough that he could have stayed in the Senate as a sort of Susan Collins type.

harry: Corker’s numbers slid. I’m not sure he would have won necessarily if he really wanted to critique Trump.

micah: Yeah, isn’t the idea that he would have become far more unpopular by speaking out against Trump?

perry: I think many of these Republican senators believe Trump is uniquely terrible. That is what Flake and Corker are getting at: Let’s use our inside voices outside. If he is terrible, let’s tell people.

natesilver: Corker might have lost. But now you’re almost guaranteed to have someone more Trump-friendly in that Senate seat.

micah: So much of this comes down to how big of a threat you think the president is, right? If you’re on the left and you see Trump as a clear and present danger, then of course you’d be underwhelmed by the anti-Trumpiness of the GOP.

perry: Right.

micah: But let me introduce another element here …


Nate, can you give the people a snappy description of what this is?

natesilver: It’s how often a member of Congress votes the way that Trump wants.

That’s it. It’s pretty simple. It’s a measure of roll-call votes.

micah: So people have been throwing around Flake’s and McCain’s and Corker’s Trump scores — which are all very high — as evidence that their criticism of Trump is hollow.

That seems silly to me, but what do you all think?

natesilver: It’s certainly possible that you could agree with Trump on his legislative priorities but also think he’s a danger to the Republic. In that case, you might have a high Trump score, since most of what’s reflected in it is legislation.

harry: Can I just note that there’s nothing new about measures like the Trump score? People have been tracking stuff like this for years. What’s different here is that we’re doing it in real time. It’s more about the interpretation that some people are taking.

natesilver: Yeah. We’re doing it in real time. And our scores are more transparent — it’s more obvious what they mean.

perry: Micah and I have had this debate a lot internally. So we can have it publicly now.

I appreciate the work of my colleagues in creating this tool. And it explains some things really well. But I see these liberals saying, “Well, Trump is with Flake 90 percent of the time.” Flake wrote a book trashing Trump. Trump wanted Flake out of the Senate. Something is not being captured there.

And the other challenge is that Trump is often very disengaged from the legislative process. So the things that get voted on are really the Paul Ryan-Mitch McConnell priorities, or put differently, the Koch brothers agenda. I know why we are calling it a Trump score, but I at times worry that that communicates to the audience that Trump has defined priorities on a lot of legislation, some of which I doubt he knows exist.

natesilver: I don’t know. It’s a tool. Like any tool, it can be misused.

micah: Perry has outlined the fairest criticism.

But like … don’t the Trump scores simply show that Trump hasn’t pushed an agenda distinct from normal GOP orthodoxy?

perry: Right.

I think people are misusing/misunderstanding the tool.

micah: We could rename it the “GOP Congress-Trump Legislative Agreement Score.”

natesilver: I mean, the scores show that the Republican agenda and the Trump agenda have become pretty well aligned.

The lowest Trump score among Republicans (Collins at 81 percent) is much higher than the highest Trump score among Democrats (Joe Manchin at 54 percent).

harry: Also, the Republican senators with the lowest Trump scores aren’t surprising; they tend to be the senators widely recognized as the most anti-Trump: Collins, Rand Paul, McCain, Corker, etc.

GOP senators by Trump score
1 Roy Blunt Missouri 96.2%
2 John Boozman Arkansas 96.2
3 Bill Cassidy Louisiana 96.2
4 Thad Cochran Mississippi 96.2
5 John Cornyn Texas 96.2
6 Orrin Hatch Utah 96.2
7 John Hoeven North Dakota 96.2
8 Pat Roberts Kansas 96.2
9 Mike Rounds South Dakota 96.2
10 John Thune South Dakota 96.2
11 Thom Tillis North Carolina 96.2
12 Roger Wicker Mississippi 96.2
13 Richard Burr North Carolina 96.1
14 Mitch McConnell Kentucky 96.1
15 Marco Rubio Florida 96.1
16 Dan Sullivan Alaska 95.9
17 Johnny Isakson Georgia 94.4
18 John Barrasso Wyoming 94.2
19 Ted Cruz Texas 94.2
20 Cory Gardner Colorado 94.2
21 James Inhofe Oklahoma 94.2
22 Tim Scott South Carolina 94.2
23 Richard Shelby Alabama 94.2
24 Shelley Moore Capito West Virginia 94.1
25 Jerry Moran Kansas 94.1
26 David Perdue Georgia 94.1
27 Lamar Alexander Tennessee 94.0
28 Tom Cotton Arkansas 92.3
29 Mike Crapo Idaho 92.3
30 Steve Daines Montana 92.3
31 Mike Enzi Wyoming 92.3
32 Joni Ernst Iowa 92.3
33 Deb Fischer Nebraska 92.3
34 Chuck Grassley Iowa 92.3
35 Ron Johnson Wisconsin 92.3
36 John Kennedy Louisiana 92.3
37 James Lankford Oklahoma 92.3
38 Rob Portman Ohio 92.3
39 Todd Young Indiana 92.3
40 Dean Heller Nevada 90.4
41 Mike Lee Utah 90.4
42 James Risch Idaho 90.4
43 Ben Sasse Nebraska 90.2
44 Pat Toomey Pennsylvania 90.2
45 Jeff Flake Arizona 90.0
46 Luther Strange Alabama 90.0
47 Lindsey Graham South Carolina 88.5
48 Bob Corker Tennessee 86.3
49 Lisa Murkowski Alaska 86.3
50 John McCain Arizona 84.0
51 Rand Paul Kentucky 84.0
52 Susan Collins Maine 80.8

natesilver: Yeah, it does a pretty decent job.

perry: Yeah, that actually is perfect in capturing the anti-Trump wing in the Senate. Although, it is strange that Luther Strange is there.
But broader point: I don’t expect someone like Flake, who is quite conservative, to vote against tax cuts because Trump supports them.

natesilver: Right, but it’s reasonable to point out that someone like Collins — despite occasionally disagreeing with Trump, including on important issues — is still quite an asset to him, compared with a Democrat from Maine.

micah: Well, this gets us back to how you judge Republican resistiness — there are people who think Trump is such a threat to the nation that Republicans should be blocking appointments/legislation even if they support them on substance. There are people who think they should switch parties! If you subscribe to that theory, then the Trump score does count as evidence that the McCains and Flakes of the world haven’t done much.

As Nate just said, Collins is still an asset overall.

natesilver: There haven’t been many appointments lately — and Trump has mostly sidestepped making controversial ones.

harry: I mean, these are still Republicans.

perry: This is an interesting question. Tom Price had a bunch of controversial behavior well before he was confirmed as health and human services secretary and well before he resigned after the plane stuff. Should Flake/Corker/McCain have not voted for him? (They did.) Would they do that today?

natesilver: That’s why I’m saying the big tests are still ahead.

harry: What are the big tests? Do we know them yet?

natesilver: Ultimately, some of the resistance will have to come in the form of roll-call votes — like rebuffing his Cabinet nominees or (gulp) even voting to impeach him.

perry: Right, but taxes is the wrong issue on which to judge GOP resistance. Nominations and appointments are right. So are U.S. attorneys, foreign policy appointments, people who could be involved in Russia stuff: Like if Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were to leave and Trump wanted to appoint an even more pro-Russia person. Or if his U.S. attorney appointment in New York seems to be someone with obvious ties to Trump who won’t prosecute crimes by Trump allies.

natesilver: Congress could pass legislation that would make it more difficult to fire Mueller. The fact that they haven’t yet is a good point for the critics.

micah: Or Congress could pass laws aimed at curbing Trump’s potential corruption/conflict of interest stuff.

perry: Yes.

harry: Of course, a number of GOP senators have also said that Trump shouldn’t fire Mueller.

perry: Like this is a serious idea: Republicans should join with Democrats to block any U.S. attorney nominee who Trump has personally met with.

And, yeah, the fact that the pro-Mueller bills have not moved is telling.

natesilver: People are also within their rights to be skeptical of Republicans standing up to Trump based on how the 2016 primaries went down. Trump, famously, received very few endorsements from Republican elected officials. But as we learned, there’s a big difference between failing to endorse and actually resisting someone.

harry: By the way, Flake has not signed onto a bill that would make it harder for Trump to fire Mueller.

micah: I think what we’re seeing is a number of Republican senators who are anti-Trump on non-policy issues (protecting Mueller/rule of law/etc.) and pro-Trump on policy (which is basically just pro-GOP). … BUT they’re active on the policy things and passive on the non-policy things.

That’s the key: active vs. passive.

natesilver: Right. There’s been an impressive amount of passive resistance to Trump and not (yet) very much active resistance.

perry: I guess it’s somewhat hard to be active on non-policy things, since Congress doesn’t really vote on those, right?

micah: Couldn’t they, though?

perry: Is active resistance politically possible in the Republican Party of today?

Politicians perhaps should do things that are political risks. But they almost never do.

micah: That’s a hard question to answer, Perry. My first instinct is “no.”

But maybe that’s simply a case of expectations.

What would happen if every Republican senator up for re-election in 2018 simultaneously came out and broke with Trump in a sustained way?

perry: Well, on Russia sanctions it happened.

He whined, signed the bill and the party people won the fight.

If every senator up for re-election did that, they would all increase their chances of losing to a Steve-Bannon-backed candidate. There is no safety in numbers when the number is fairly small — only six Senate Republicans are up in 2018 (not counting Flake, Corker or the Alabama special election). If every House Republican did that, that would be different. It would be something like 240 people.

harry: I think we’re seeing a major resistance to resisting Trump in that fashion. Look what’s happening in the Alabama Senate race. Roy Moore has said a lot of stuff outside the mainstream, and he was welcomed into Washington with open arms before he’s even won the seat. The fear of losing is really, really powerful. Distancing themselves from that part of the Republican base is not tenable because it would mean, in their mind, losing the election.

perry: A good test will be if Mitt Romney ever says a negative thing about Trump again, since he is rumored to be considering a Senate run in Utah if Orrin Hatch retires.

micah: Clare is on vacation, but in her honor I feel compelled to say …


Anyway, give me a little more detail on what we would see the key tests being for Republicans in Congress.

natesilver: I continue to think the three nuclear-level events are:

  1. Trump firing Mueller.
  2. Trump pardoning people in his inner circle.
  3. Mueller returning with an obstruction of justice finding or something equally severe against Trump.

micah: Let’s talk short of nuclear-level, though.

What would the ramp-up tests be?

natesilver: Part of the problem is that there aren’t that many ramp-up tests.

micah: Interesting!

harry: Again, what are you breaking with Trump on? The GOP Congress and Trump agree on most major policy questions — hence those high Trump scores.

micah: The Federal Reserve chair has to be confirmed by the Senate, right?

Other appointments?

And what about investigations?

Proactive anti-corruption laws?

Seems like there are a lot of options?

harry: I mean, if they started passing those anti-corruption laws, that would be a sign of something.

natesilver: If Trump tried to appoint, say, Rudy Giuliani to something, that would be interesting. But Trump has actually played it pretty carefully on appointments so far.

perry: Giuliani. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

I think it will be fairly hard to have clear votes on things because McConnell will signal to the White House when the votes are there and when they’re not.

micah: You think the Senate would balk at Christie?

perry: Let’s not debate Christie. He will not be nominated.

micah: Lol.

natesilver: Yeah, and that’s another flaw with roll-call measures — they don’t measure things that never get to the floor.

harry: Why the hate toward Mr. 14 Percent Approval? (Also known as Chris Christie.)

natesilver: BTW, Congress could be doing a lot more on its own to investigate Trump, and they could make more of those investigations public.

micah: Yeah, that would qualify as a ramp-up test to me.

natesilver: Mueller — and the media — have devoted a lot of resources to investigating Trump, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that Congress couldn’t ramp up its investigations too.

perry: And that is an important place where Congress is not pushing back on Trump.

In fact, Republicans in Congress have moved in a pro-Trump, anti-Hillary Clinton direction in terms of investigations.

harry: That’s why I think you said to watch Richard Burr, right, Perry? To watch some of those investigations.

perry: GOP super-partisans have basically captured all of the committees but Burr’s. That’s important.

micah: OK, final question: Is it accurate to call Collins, Flake, Corker, McCain or any other Senate Republican “anti-Trump”?

perry: I call them Trump-skeptical. Maybe that’s cautious, but it’s more accurate, I think.

micah: I like that terminology.

harry: My problem with this is it’s difficult to call someone anti-Trump when they are agreeing with him a lot on policy. I would call some of them Trump-headaches. I know, lame phrase.

natesilver: You could call them “anti-Trump-curious.”

micah: lol

perry: Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol are anti-Trump. I can’t think of a Republican member of Congress who is really anti-Trump.

They are anti-Trumpism.

If we think of Trumpism as being more about nationalism, white identity politics, norms-bashing, institution-breaking, media-slamming, then Flake, Corker, etc., are against that. But not really Trump policies.

harry: For an anti-Trumper, the disagreements with Trump’s behavior, etc., have to override policy agreement. I don’t think we see that yet in Congress.

micah: Yeah, the passive vs. active seems like the dividing line.

Let’s call them “passively anti-Trump curious.”

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.