Don’t get hung up on the frivolous personality issues, said House Speaker Paul Ryan: “It’s not just a choice of two people, but two visions for America”—and Republicans needed a president who would sign their conservative legislation.
Ironically, this sentiment was perhaps best articulated by Tennessee Senator Bob Corker—the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee who has emerged in recent days as the leading Republican voice sounding the alarm about the president’s volatility and incompetence. In a 2016 interview with the Tennessean newspaper, Corker dismissed what he called the “caricature” of Trump as an impetuous man who should be allowed nowhere near the nuclear football.
“Once you come into the Oval Office, and you understand the tremendous decisions that you have to make and the magnitude of those and the effect that it’s going to have on the world,” Corker said, “I think that there’s a tremendous soberness and typically when you go in, you can end with lots of very highly qualified people around you.”
Only now, nine months into the Trump presidency, are Republicans like Corker admitting how badly they misread the situation—and just how catastrophic the consequences to their wrongness could be.
“For many within the party, there was still a belief that once Trump became president, the weight of the job would cause some changes,” said Doug Heye, a Capitol Hill veteran who worked for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “This is not necessarily misguided—the presidency has, in one way or another, changed every previous inhabitant.”
Like many of his Republican friends in Washington, Heye said he was “swept up in Inaugural enthusiasm” at the outset of Trump’s term—convinced that the conservative administration the president was assembling would work with the GOP-controlled Congress to push through major policy victories. Instead, the Republican legislative agenda has all but ground to a halt, and the White House has remained in a near-constant state of chaos as a rotating cast of beleaguered aides tries and fails to rein in the mercurial commander in chief.
These days, Heye told me, he’s feeling less sanguine: “I’ve never forgotten what one House member privately told me on the day before the Inauguration: ‘This won’t end well.’”
One of the main reasons so many Capitol Hill Republicans were confident that Trump would settle down and conform to the conventions of the office was that they had followed similar trajectories themselves. In the years since the Tea Party wave of 2010, scores of conservative lawmakers have arrived in Washington fresh off campaigns in which they gave provocative (and sometimes racially charged) stump speeches, made outlandish promises to their grassroots constituents, and generally pledged to act as anti-establishment insurgents hell-bent on disrupting the D.C. status quo.