Republicans have seen into the future—and it looks out of their control.
Just a few weeks ago, the GOP celebrated a clean sweep of the House, Senate, and the presidency and began planning all the things they could do with their new found power.
But that power has come with a price: because while Republicans may control Congress, they are quickly realizing they don’t have control of the message. And while it’s not unusual for a president-elect to direct the conversation, it’s never been quite like this.
Many of them realize that Trump’s tweets will punctuate the Washington landscape sporadically and without warning. On any given day, they fret, their plans could be upended because their president doesn’t have the discipline not to tweet about a tangential issue.
Their palpable irritation with the various tweet storms that the president-elect creates on a whim was on full display as they returned to Washington on Tuesday.
“Let me make it perfectly clear: I’m not commenting on Donald Trump’s daily comments. I’m not going to do it,” said Sen. John McCain, a senior statesman of the Republican Senate caucus and himself formerly a presidential contender. “I have said, and continue to say, that I am not commenting on Mr. Trump’s comments. I have too much other work to do.”
“When you say things, you’re no longer Donald Trump. You’re Donald Trump… soon-to-be-president of the United States,” Sen. Lindsey Graham lectured the incoming administration.
In the last few days, the controversial tweets have piled up. What do lawmakers think about Trump’s suggestion that millions of fraudulent votes were cast, costing him the popular vote?
“I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump said Sunday afternoon, without any evidence—a claim Politifact immediately rates as untrue, or “Pants on Fire!”
Or what about his remarks Tuesday morning, seemingly out of nowhere (or possibly prompted by a story earlier this month about students burning a flag in Massachusetts), that burning the flag should be criminalized?
“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag—if they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Trump wrote.
“We just wake up and find out what we have to do every morning,” a senior Republican Senate aide told The Daily Beast, perplexed that the Capitol was abuzz with chatter about the constitutionality of flag burning, which was decided in the Supreme Court in landmark decisions back in 1989 and 1990—over a quarter century ago.
So instead of discussing national security issues on Tuesday, as is his expertise and preferred topic, Graham began mulling over how to address Trump’s latest tweet-induced carnival.
“If you’ve got any suggestions that there is a real problem with the way the votes are tallied, put it on the table,” Graham scolded the president-elect. “You’re now the President-elect of the United States. If you really believe that millions of people voted illegally you should show some proof… No one has suggested to me that there’s evidence of what he said. And if there’s no evidence, please stop saying that.”
In a sign of the times, Graham said he was looking into introducing a congressional resolution saying that Congress viewed the elections as accurate, free, and fair—because Trump’s suggestions of fraud “does create uncertainty in the minds of some.” Just one problem, though, Graham told the Beast—he’s still trying to find a Democratic co-sponsor.
Asked if the president-elect should even have a Twitter account, the South Carolina senator quipped, “That’s up to him. He’s over 21 years old.”
Trump’s unpredictable and undisciplined Twitter activity is already deeply alienating to his fellow Republicans—even before he’s taken office. His talk about voter fraud is especially off-putting to his GOP cohorts, both because he won the election and because it undercuts the spirit of American democracy.
“Those that cast aspersions on our election process shouldn’t—we have a good process. I feel that way. When Donald Trump said during the campaign he might not accept the results, I condemned that,” said GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, who frequently criticized Trump during the presidential campaign.
Even Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who has something of an incentive to question the results, declined to do so. She lost her re-election bid to Democrat Maggie Hassan by 743 votes.
“That’s already been addressed by our secretary of state, so I have nothing further to say.
“I could have asked for a recount,” Ayotte said. “I did not.”
Republicans were clearly uncomfortable with the latest wave of Trump-related controversies and questions. Most walked away from the press without answering questions.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the environment and public works committee, allowed that Twitter “could be” a distraction from the Senate’s day-to-day duties. He didn’t have any additional thoughts to add—until a reporter asked about WRDA, the Water Resources Development Act.
“WRDA! Now you’re talking about something important, instead of voter fraud!” Inhofe said.