Even for some Republicans, it is still a bit unbelievable. They have it all now—all the power. They won it fair and square. Donald Trump is assuming the presidency, and Republicans control the House and Senate.
They streamed into Washington this week to collect their reward, the activists and party hacks and true believers who helped make it happen. The members of the Republican National Committee, representing every state and territory, gathered in the ornate, slightly dowdy ballrooms of Washington’s Omni Shoreham hotel, where they took care of the party’s business between being feted at lunches, receptions, and inaugural balls. The mood was jubilant: Against all odds, after years of frustration, everything they worked for had come to pass.
The Republicans—a few hundred RNC members and nonmember guests—took their seats in rows of chairs to hear the good news: control of Congress, 33 of 50 governorships, control of the legislatures of 32 states. On the stage, their chairman for the last six years, Reince Priebus, told them their efforts had been key to the party’s success.
“We’ve got record levels of red all over this country, a mandate from the American people to lead, and the wind at our back to offer a new course for our country!” Priebus exulted. An unassuming lawyer from Kenosha, Wisconsin, Priebus had spent much of the last two years disparaged as inept and mocked for leading his party to ruin; now he was on his way to becoming White House chief of staff.
But the Republican Party that takes over Washington as Trump assumes the presidency is not one the Priebus of a few years ago might have recognized. Trump won the GOP primary, and then the general election, on a populist-nationalist platform that upended much of the party’s conservative dogma. Many Republican elders abandoned him, offended in principle and sure he could not win. They got their comeuppance on Election Night.
In the weeks since, Trump has moved on every level to demonstrate his dominance: over the party organization, over Republicans in Congress, over the press and the public arena. Not for him to compromise, to accommodate, to forgive. He enters the White House as determined as ever to divide and conquer, to punish his enemies, to do things his way and sideline the enforcers of the old order.
Trump entered the Republican Party as an interloper; now, he pulls its strings. To replace Priebus at the helm of the party, Trump picked the chairwoman of the Michigan GOP, Ronna Romney McDaniel, whose uncle, Mitt Romney, had implacably opposed Trump to the end of the campaign.
But McDaniel proved her loyalty. In mid-October, when Trump’s fortunes were at their nadir—after the debates, after the Access Hollywood tape, when even Priebus was suggesting Trump might have to quit the race, and pundits were saying Republicans would lose the Senate and maybe the House—Wendy Day, a vice chairwoman of the Michigan GOP, joined the chorus of Republicans proclaiming they could not support Trump. McDaniel used her power as chairwoman to eject Day from her post.
Trump ended up winning Michigan by a quarter of a percentage point, the narrowest margin of any state. On Thursday, as McDaniel was nominated to lead the party, her purging of Day was lauded from the stage: she showed “courage,” said Susan Hutchison, chair of the Washington state GOP, with her “quick decision to improve the situation in her state when someone was going rogue.” The RNC vote to make McDaniel party chair was unanimous.
The party also has a co-chair, a secondary position that must be occupied by someone of the opposite sex of the chair. This, too, was a demonstration of Trump’s control: It went to Bob Paduchik, who had led Trump’s campaign in Ohio.
Paduchik spent 2016 locked in a struggle with his state’s Republican governor, John Kasich, who opposed Trump to the end. The Ohio party apparatus loyal to Kasich held Trump at arm’s length. But even so, Trump won the state by 8 points. And earlier this month, Trump personally telephoned Ohio central committee members to get the Kasich-loyal state chairman, Matt Borges, voted out, and a Trump supporter, Jane Timken, named to the job.
That the president-elect would spend his time strong-arming state party activists—and do so publicly—sent shockwaves through what was left of the Republican establishment, putting them on notice that Trump and his people were watching closely and would brook no dissent. “That was the first indication that he was willing to be personally involved in state party politics,” Mike Duncan, a former RNC chairman and 25-year committee veteran, told me, calling the overtness of it “unprecedented.”
Will Republicans give Trump what he wants, even when it contradicts what they once professed to believe in? Will they have any choice? This is not just the question for members of the Republican National Committee—it is the question that will determine the course of Trump’s presidency in GOP-occupied Washington. (There are, of course, still Democrats, but their numbers are too few, and their strategy appears too muddled, to do much but stall at this point.)
In between RNC sessions, I chatted in the lobby of the Omni with a couple of nonmember party activists from Texas who had come to observe the proceedings. Bill Eastland, a gray-mustached, twang-voiced accountant from Arlington, Texas, voted for Trump but would have preferred his home-state senator, the conservative firebrand Ted Cruz. He looked forward to what he saw as the upsides of a Trump administration: rolling back environmental and labor regulations, appointing conservatives to the Supreme Court, cutting taxes. But he was staunchly opposed to other Trump-professed ideas—a big-ticket infrastructure spending plan, a federal childcare benefit, tariffs, lower immigration levels—not to mention what he saw as a worrying disregard for the Constitution.
“The small-government conservatives will stand up against him if he does those things,” Eastland said, including Cruz.
But his companion, Amy Hedtke, a blogger whose signature is her red-white-and-blue high-heeled platform knee-high boots, laughed and begged to differ. She reminded him how the party’s voters lashed out at those who stood up to Trump on principle during the campaign. Cruz was booed at the GOP convention and is still trying to mend fences with the base.
“There’s a good portion of us who think Trump is a liberal who basically pulled an Alinsky on the GOP and beat them with their own rules,” Hedtke said. “It’s kind of funny, from an anarchist standpoint.”
Eastland looked chagrined. “Well, she’s an anarchist,” he said to me. “I have a different view.”
“He’s going to feed them a shit sandwich, and they’re going to smile and lick it up,” Hedtke insisted. She wore a “Guns Don’t Kill People, Abortion Clinics Do” button. The GOP would, she predicted, redefine conservatism to mean whatever Trump wanted it to.
Back inside the ballroom, the new party chair, McDaniel, thanked the committee members for her new charge. She did not use the word “conservative” to describe herself. “I am a mom from Michigan,” she said. “I am an outsider. And I am here to make Donald Trump and Republicans everywhere successful!” The Republicans stood and applauded.
Trump’s fans hope he will master Washington, while Washington generally believes it will master him. A few weeks ago, I went to Capitol Hill for the first day of the new Congress and the election of the speaker of the House. It should have been a festive day for Republicans: “We have the city back!” one GOP chief of staff told me. “The team is in the lead again!” But Republicans’ day of celebration had instead been consumed by self-inflicted controversy.
The night before, House Republicans had voted behind closed doors to change the structure of the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body that investigates corruption and misconduct. Ryan, the speaker, had urged them not to do it, but most representatives agreed with Bob Goodlatte, of Virginia, that the office was out of control and out to get them, and needed to be curbed.
The idea that Republicans’ first move of the new term would be to gut ethics oversight generated a torrent of Democratic criticism and public backlash. Outraged phone calls poured in. And then, at 10 a.m., Trump issued a pair of tweets: “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”
Just before taking to the House floor for the noon speaker election, Republicans voted to undo the ethics change.
Most Republicans I spoke to said this would have not happened had Trump not weighed in—ostensibly taking their side, but urging them to recalibrate their priorities. Had Trump stayed quiet, they likely could have weathered the controversy. House Republicans—the same crowd that shut down the government in 2013—are relatively inured to general public pressure, media criticism, and supposed political imperatives. Many viewed the angry phone calls as coming from national pressure groups, not their own constituents.
But what they do care about is their activist base, and they learned from the campaign that Trump commands it. Some learned this when they tried to distance themselves from Trump and were deluged with anger from within the party. Ryan learned it when he was booed and heckled at a rally in his own district in Wisconsin. It was telling that when Ryan urged his members not to change the ethics office, they ignored him, but when Trump poked them, they scattered.
The controversy, another GOP staffer told me, was “emblematic” of the new order on Capitol Hill, for good and ill. Trump could use his power for good to unite a Republican caucus that has stalemated Congress and frustrated its own leaders with largely pointless discord; he might be able to break the gridlock. If he does so in favor of the things they want to do, Ryan and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, will be able to quickly undo the Obama years and impose Republican rule.
But it’s already apparent that it won’t be that simple. When Republicans got to work on a plan to repeal Obamacare on a two- or three-year delay, buying them time to come up with a replacement plan, Trump tweeted his displeasure, pointing out that this would get them blamed for health-care problems without fixing anything. He has repeatedly insisted that they should repeal and replace Obamacare at the same time, and that he wants the new plan to insure everybody.
Confused by these departures from their own message, Republicans have taken to asserting that Trump must mean something other than what he has said. “We think everybody ought to have access to affordable health-care insurance,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota told BuzzFeed. “I assume that’s what he means by that statement and that’s how we’re proceeding.”
In place of Trump’s 35 percent tariff, Republicans have been working on a complicated “border adjustment tax.” Trump doesn’t like it, and said so. Republicans are scrambling to assemble funding for Trump’s border wall, even as he insists he will eventually stick Mexico with the bill. Some insist they still want to achieve their longtime goal of scaling back entitlements, even as Trump shows no interest in this. Trump’s nominees seem to be breezing through their Senate hearings despite not having completed the customary paperwork.
There are peeps of dissent: Few Republicans have embraced Trump’s friendly stance on Russia; fiscal conservatives warn of blowing up the deficit. But just as in the campaign, when other Republicans on the ticket couldn’t decide whether to stick with Trump or abandon him, the political calculus isn’t clear, and they don’t know how far he will push them out of their comfort zones.
The incoming administration has competing power centers, with much of the legislative agenda driven by traditional conservatives and Vice President Mike Pence—until Trump notices something, weighs in, and scrambles the equation. But even his own advisers expect Trump to be chastened as he runs up against the reality of the policymaking process. A top administration official told me Trump is prepared to do battle with Republicans on infrastructure, trade, and child care, even as he gladdens them with an industry-friendly slash-and-burn approach to regulation.
Republican leaders are still hoping to talk Trump into the border tax, the official said, while Trump is serious about getting the GOP to embrace allowing the government to negotiate prescription-drug prices, an idea Democrats have proposed and Republicans have opposed in the past.
On Capitol Hill, after the Republicans backtracked on gutting the ethics office, they trickled down to the floor of the House—new members looking anxious and attentive, veterans chatting and mingling. Many had brought young children, dressed in formal clothes. Near the front, former Vice President Dick Cheney sat with his daughter, Liz Cheney, a newly elected representative from Wyoming.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, congresswoman from Washington, encouraged the members to embrace their historic opportunity. “We have the opportunity to think big, to put the people back at the center of government,” she said. “And there is no one better to lead the people’s house than Paul D. Ryan.”
The members cast their votes. House Republicans, so fractious and divided in recent years, their leaders constantly assailed by the right wing, were suddenly in almost total agreement. Only one Republican, a libertarian from Kentucky, voted against Ryan.
Last week, in New York, I attended Trump’s press conference, the first he has given since July. The timing was ripe for an epic clash: It was only the night before that an explosive, unverified dossier on Trump’s alleged connections to Russia had been published by BuzzFeed and alluded to by CNN. Hundreds of reporters packed into the marble-walled lobby of Trump Tower, jostling for space.
Trump’s combative press secretary, Sean Spicer, assailed the “sad and pathetic” publication of the dossier. Pence, in his more-in-sorrow-than-anger manner, chided that it was “irresponsible.” But Trump began by offering an ostensible olive branch, saying, “I just want to compliment many of the people in the room,” and praising the news organizations that had not run the dossier or had come out against doing so.
He touted deals with individual companies who have announced they are adding American jobs and given him the credit. (Many of these claims have not stood up to scrutiny—corporations seem to be attempting to curry favor with the new president by attributing to him things they planned to do anyway—and some conservatives dislike his meddling in markets.) He decried the pharmaceutical industry for “getting away with murder.” He said the inauguration would be “very, very elegant.”
He took several questions about Russia, confronting the dossier’s unsubstantiated allegations about his sexual conduct with a sort of ridiculous logic—he could not have engaged in certain antics with Russian prostitutes because he is “very much of a germophobe.” (Trump does, in fact, have a long-documented history of discomfort with bodily functions, and for many years prior to the presidential campaign reportedly disliked shaking hands.) He reiterated his desire to have a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There was a long table next to Trump’s lectern, and it was set with stacks of manila folders. Midway through the questioning, he brought on a lawyer, Sheri Dillon, to explain that the paperwork contained therein would ensure that Trump did not face conflicts of interest between his business and his presidency. Ethics experts, Republican and Democrat, quickly pronounced the arrangement, under which Trump’s sons would run the business, vastly insufficient.
It was after Trump retook the lectern from Dillon that a CNN reporter, Jim Acosta, tried to ask a question. “Not you,” Trump said, gesturing elsewhere. Acosta persisted. “Your organization is terrible,” Trump said. “Quiet. Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”
Acosta tried to hold his own, but there was nothing he could do. Trump took another question. (Confusingly, he called on a different CNN reporter a couple of questions later.) At the end of the press conference, the manila folders were cleared away without anyone getting to look inside them. The press would feed for days on Trump’s transgressions of everything they held dear.
Once again, Trump had divided and conquered his foes. Once again, he had blazed past his haters and gotten his way. They didn't have to like it for Trump to prevail. And soon, he would be sworn in as president.