Donald Trump won the GOP nomination and then the presidency even as many prominent officials within the party opposed him. He spent much of his first two years in office struggling to get his policies enacted, with top advisers such as then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis essentially ignoring his demands. Early in his tenure, the GOP-controlled House and Senate adopted several measures, such as new sanctions on Russia, that it was clear Trump did not truly support, leaving the president looking irrelevant. At the same time, Trump was being investigated by the executive branch that he was running, in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
Even as he was losing some fights in 2017 and 2018, though, Trump was also steadily beating back Republican resistance to his leadership. In many ways, 2019 was the culmination of that work. As we approach the end of the year, Trump is truly in charge of the party now — a fact that was powerfully illustrated last week when every Republican member of the House opposed impeachment despite ample evidence that the president and his team tried to force the Ukrainian government to investigate the former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Let me unpack that idea by looking at power centers within the government and the broader Republican Party.
The executive branch
Trump spent the latter half of 2017 and all of 2018 gradually forcing out the more establishment Republicans who he had initially put into top jobs in his administration. That process was all but completed in 2019. He replaced Mattis, national security adviser John Bolton and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats — all of whom allowed their disagreements with Trump to become public — with people who were more likely to align his vision. One of the first moves of Robert O’Brien, the new national security adviser, was to reduce the number of non-political staffers working at the National Security Council, essentially an effort to prevent future anti-Trump whistleblowers.1 New Defense Secretary Mark Esper forced out Navy Secretary Richard Spicer amid tensions over Trump softening the punishments for a Navy Seal accused of war crimes in Iraq.
By far the most important personnel change was the confirmation of William Barr in February to run the Department of Justice. From downplaying Mueller’s findings before the special counsel’s report was publicly released to aggressively investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, Barr is executing Trump’s agenda at DOJ in a way that Jeff Sessions never did.
The congressional GOP has become more and more aligned with Trump through two mechanisms: First, members are retiring and being replaced by more pro-Trump figures, and second, members who remain in office are increasingly aligning themselves with the president.
In 2018, 26 Republicans in the House and Senate opted to retire from politics rather than seek reelection. It was the second-biggest congressional exodus for the GOP since at least 1974. A similar trend has developed in 2019 (there are already 24 retirements) and I would expect more Republican lawmakers will head for the exits early next year. Trump isn’t the only reason that these members are retiring, but being a congressional Republican increasingly means defending whatever Trump does — and some GOP members don’t want to do that.
I haven’t comprehensively studied the comments about Trump and the voting behavior of Republicans who entered Congress in 2019 compared to the people they replaced. But looking at the broader story of what is happening in both the House and Senate suggests that the newer members are helping shift the congressional GOP closer to Trump. In Trump’s first two years, for example, then-Speaker Paul Ryan sometimes balked at the president’s demands, angering the House Freedom Caucus. But Ryan’s former No. 2, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, is now the top Republican in the House, and he’s gone from Trump skeptic to fierce loyalist. The House Republicans are now essentially one big Freedom Caucus, aligning with the president on nearly every issue.
In the Senate in 2017-2018, there were six GOP members who regularly criticized the president: Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. McCain eventually died. Flake and Corker retired, and the latter was replaced by the very-pro-Trump Sen. Marsha Blackburn. Up for reelection next year and needing Republican votes to ensure he is not defeated in a GOP primary, Sasse has dialed down his criticism of the president. The Trump-skeptical wing of Senate Republicans is now really down to three people: newly elected Mitt Romney of Utah, Collins and Murkowski.
There are also significantly fewer GOP House members now than there were at the start of Trump’s tenure. So one element of the story here is that Republicans, particularly those in blue or purple areas, are losing elections in part because of Trump’s unpopularity. The 2018 midterms, for example, all but wiped out Republicans representing districts that were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. So the elected officials who remain are more likely to represent more conservative districts and states. And the GOP senators and representatives who are inclined to push back against Trump are more isolated as a result.
Matt Glassman, who studies Congress as a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, argued that losing the House also in some ways strengthened the bond between congressional Republicans and the president. When congressional Republicans and Trump aren’t aligned on something, they blame their challenges on a common enemy: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“When the GOP controlled both chambers, they had to find ways to bury his Trumpy legislative agenda. Now they can just let Pelosi do that,” said Glassman.
Let’s start with the governors. In 2017 and 2018, there were basically five Trump-skeptical Republican governors: Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, John Kasich of Ohio, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Phil Scott of Vermont. They opposed GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare — playing an important role in signaling that the party was not united on that issue, even as most congressional Republicans fell in line and backed the repeal efforts. But the Trump-skeptical gubernatorial ranks have since dropped — Kasich left office because of term limits, replaced by a Republican (Mike DeWine) who doesn’t publicly criticize Trump much. Sandoval also left because of term limits, replaced by a Democrat (Steve Sisolak.) There are also just fewer GOP governors today than there were when Trump was sworn in — the same blue wave that gave Democrats the House in the midterms also knocked several Republicans out of the top job in blue states.
We’ve also seen state Republican parties closely ally themselves with Trump in 2019. At the beginning of this year, I thought Trump might face a serious challenge in the Republican primaries. I was wrong. Former Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois and ex-Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts entered the race but never really gained any traction. But even if a real challenger had emerged, he or she would have had to overcome a huge barrier — GOP state party officials in several states have canceled caucuses and primaries to ensure that Trump doesn’t have to face any competitors in those states. Maybe the state parties would not have made those moves if Hogan or another Republican with more standing in the party were challenging the president, rather than Walsh, who served only one term in Congress, and Weld, who hasn’t held an elected office in years and last made news by running for vice president as a Libertarian.
But I tend to think that this is another example of the party bowing to Trump’s power — and that even a viable challenger would have been effectively shut out by the canceled primaries.
An alliance between the Federalist Society, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump has resulted in the president appointing 50 judges to appellate courts, nearly as many as Obama appointed (55) in eight years. And Trump, of course, has also made two Supreme Court appointments, with new Justice Brett Kavanaugh serving his first full year on high court in 2019.
Some of these judges, like Kavanaugh, would likely have been appointed by a President Ted Cruz or a President John Kasich. But I think it matters that more and more of Trump’s appointees are on the bench. Why? Because it’s likely that some of the cases that these judges are going to hear will be Trump-related questions that would likely not apply to a President Cruz or Kasich: Is the way that the Trump administration is trying to build additional barriers along the Mexico-U.S. border legal, considering Congress’s objections to some of this spending? Should the president have to release his tax returns? Should his aides have to testify on Capitol Hill?
These Trump-appointed judges, whatever their legal views, have some reason to be loyal to Trump, in a way that a conservative judge appointed by a president like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush does not. Several of Trump’s appointees had questionable qualifications (according to legal experts) and might not have not been appointed by another GOP president. Trump stuck by Kavanaugh amid the sexual misconduct allegations, and Kavanaugh has said he is grateful for that support. Next summer, when the court rules on whether Trump must release his tax returns, could that gratitude color how Kavanaugh sees the case, which touches not on Trump’s policies but matters that are more about Trump personally?
Trump’s further consolidation of the GOP really matters. First, as I have written before, there is substantial conservative opposition to Trump. But it’s largely concentrated among former senior administration officials and members of Congress, as well as media figures who are on CNN and not Fox News. Trump’s GOP opponents increasingly raising their objections in spaces where they will not be heard by many GOP voters.
Secondly, if Republican members of Congress and even Trump-appointed judges are aligned with Trump, it makes it easier for Trump to cast any disagreement with him or his policy moves as simply Democrats opposing him because he’s a Republican. And the media covers partisan disputes in a less negative way for Trump than disputes that cross party lines.
Finally, the Republican Party’s near-total alignment with Trump makes it harder for GOP critics of the president to gain any traction. Romney seems to want to lead an insurgency among Republicans on Capitol Hill, but he can’t lead anything if he doesn’t have any followers. And so far, there is little indication that there’s a substantial bloc of Republicans on Capitol Hill who want to join Romney in taking on the president.
In short, it’s Trump’s Grand Old Party, now more than ever.