Trump’s Endorsement of Roy Moore Points Up a G.O.P. Problem: Chaos (NYT)

Trump’s Endorsement of Roy Moore Points Up a G.O.P. Problem: Chaos

As the party prepares for a midterm election that could bring a fierce backlash against a historically unpopular president, Republicans are growing more alarmed that a difficult race could be made worse without some semblance of planning to avert more discord.

Some top party officials say they are worried that the political environment may prove punishing enough to cost Republicans control of the House.

But an organization that can fend off such a landslide does not appear in the offing. In a departure from every modern White House, Mr. Trump himself largely dictates whom to back and how to support his preferred candidates. Even before tensions between the president and Senate Republicans flared back up over Mr. Moore’s candidacy, there was little regular communication between West Wing officials and Republicans overseeing the 2018 races, Republicans say.

The scheduled meetings between the White House, the Republican National Committee and the House and Senate campaign committees stopped months ago. Congressional officials find it difficult to get presidential signoffs for even small requests like using Mr. Trump’s name in direct-mail appeals, according to party officials. And less than a month until the election year begins, he has not scheduled a single fund-raiser for a candidate running for the House, Senate or governor.

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some top strategists involved with the midterm elections, including officials with the pre-eminent Republican Senate “Super PAC,” say they have yet to set foot in the White House for political planning sessions.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, conceded that he could not stop the Roy S. Moore from being seated if he won the Senate election in Alabama next week.

Al Drago for The New York Times

“What’s lacking is a central hierarchy in any decision-making, which is critical to candidates across country,” said Scott Reed, the senior political strategist at the United States Chamber of Commerce and a veteran of decades of campaigns. “You have this feeling that no one is fully in charge of Republican politics.”

The White House political affairs office has been effectively replaced by Mr. Trump and his Twitter account, handcuffing the president’s advisers. Requests for presidential assistance or, as in the case of the Alabama race, intervention often go unanswered because Mr. Trump’s staff members cannot offer any commitments, not knowing what the president will decide about a given candidate or campaign.

And Mr. Trump himself is tugged in countless different directions, responding to advisers and lawmakers who have competing agendas.

“Republicans are going to have to all get on the same page,” said Josh Holmes, Mr. McConnell’s top political lieutenant. “If we go into a midterm and the Steve Bannons are successful at dividing the Republican Party before we even get to the general election, it’s going to be a disaster,” he continued, referring to the president’s former chief strategist.

Mr. Bannon is still in touch with Mr. Trump and encouraged him to rally to Mr. Moore’s side. But Mr. Trump has also spurned Mr. Bannon’s entreaties to oppose a handful of Senate Republican incumbents. Indeed, the president seems to delight in demonstrating that he is beholden to no one person or faction.

He told almost nobody that he planned to tweet Monday in support of Mr. Moore. And in an effort to be prepared, aides were still discussing the possibility of Mr. Trump going to Alabama before the election next Tuesday. This week, he plans to hold a rally in Pensacola, Fla., just over the border from Alabama.

In Mr. Trump’s view, he has previously followed the advice of congressional Republicans only to find himself burned, White House aides say. The president threw his support behind Senator Luther Strange, the Republican appointee filling the Alabama seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, simply to see Mr. Strange lose by more than nine percentage points to Mr. Moore in a runoff.

Mr. McConnell’s political operation has little credibility with the president, those aides say.

And internally, Mr. Trump has no political official on his staff that he instinctually trusts in the fashion of past presidents.

Bill Stepien, the White House political director, has been seen as hobbled by others internally for months, aides also say. He is considered beholden to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who has drawn scrutiny by congressional investigators and the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Stepien has little experience at this level of politics and is not seen as somebody who can steer Mr. Trump.

The White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, is a career military man and is open about his own lack of political experience.

And a chorus of voices are encouraging Mr. Trump to define himself as apart from other Republicans rather than leading them into the midterms.

“He can either wear the inaction of the Republican Congress and be part of it or he can attack it,” said Roger J. Stone Jr., Mr. Trump’s longest-serving political adviser.

The nature of politics is so fast now, Mr. Stone said, that “who’s in the chair when the music stops” matters more than planning.

Mr. Trump has been a significant draw for the Republican National Committee and is fond of Ronna Romney McDaniel, the party chairwoman, according to two people close to the White House. She has plied Mr. Trump with data from the committee’s polling, assuring him that he is doing better than public surveys suggest.

Yet the president does not completely understand his role as a principal, Republicans say, and his political operation does not have enough sway with him to make him fully grasp that he is the leader of the Republican Party.

For example, he is still telling his friends who attend high-dollar committee fund-raisers that they do not need to pay, the sort of favoritism that can create endless headaches for staff.

In two governor’s races, in New Jersey and Virginia, this year, the candidates and their top advisers up through Election Day were uncertain what Mr. Trump might say about the elections. When Mr. Trump tweeted about an ad run by Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia, it was because he had just seen it broadcast on a Washington, D.C., station.

“You can’t plan for him, you can only survive him,” said J. Tucker Martin, who was an adviser to Mr. Gillespie.

There have been some intermittent efforts at creating more of a cohesive approach, and party officials say they intend to restart regular planning meetings with the White House, the Republican National Committee and congressional campaign strategists.

But even that is a far cry from the top-down approach of past presidents, Democratic or Republican. Under President George W. Bush, for instance, there was a weekly Tuesday meeting at the Republican National Committee between the top aides at the White House, national party and congressional campaign committees.

“This is completely unchartered territory,” said Terry Nelson, a top aide in Mr. Bush’s re-election.

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via NYT

December 5, 2017 at 07:21PM