PHILADELPHIA—Republicans are unified, they’re focused, and they control Congress and the White House. They’re ready to work. There’s just one problem: their unpredictable, erratic leader.
Victorious GOP lawmakers are in Philadelphia for their annual retreat to sketch out how they will govern. But every single day since the president’s inauguration has been overshadowed by controversies: President Donald Trump’s repeated complaints about the press’s reporting on his inaugural crowd size, his baseless claims of voter fraud, and his political speech before the CIA.
Republicans want to focus on passing tax reform and repeal Obamacare. But Trump could not help but create a spectacle at the Republican retreat. When he arrived Thursday, he delivered a word salad of a speech—a rambling, self-aggrandizing set of remarks characterized by vague promises, questionable claims, and confusion.
Notably, Trump pledged to Republican lawmakers that he would investigate voter fraud—an issue driven almost entirely by himself, and based on no evidence—prompting a dull silence from Republicans in the crowd, many of whom wish the topic would just go away.
“Any time you get away from our message, which is jobs, manufacturing, the economy, defense, rebuilding the military... I think you derail the message,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) on Thursday after the speech.
The president began his remarks, held in the crowded ballroom of a luxury hotel near City Hall, by bragging about his electoral win in Pennsylvania. “We love this state,” he said, adding that his critics had predicted he would never be victorious here. The homicide rate in Philadelphia is “terribly increasing,” he thundered—a statement that is not true.
Trump continued by saying he and the president of Mexico had mutually agreed to cancel their meeting next week—though the Mexican president had announced first that he would not attend, saying his country “does not believe” in walls and “demands respect” from the new administration.
“Such a meeting would be fruitless,” Trump declared. “I want to go a different route. We have no choice.”
In a whirlwind speech, Trump expressed frustration that his commerce secretary pick hadn’t yet been confirmed, quipping that he’ll have to deal with the British on trade by himself; pledged that “criminal aliens [are] going to be gone, fast”; and praised “clean, beautiful coal.”
And then, puzzlingly, the president asked the gathering of congressional Republicans where Mike Pompeo, his CIA director, was.
“Where is Pompeo? Where the hell is he?” Trump asked. "Oh, he’s working?”
Pompeo had been confirmed to his new role earlier this week and was no longer a member of Congress, something Trump seemed to have forgotten.
Trump’s frenetic, frenzied style is meshing poorly with the preferred pace of Republican leadership, which is hoping to iron out serious plans for the rest of the year.
And it’s not just Trump’s speeches. The seemingly random nature and timing of Trump’s tweets and public statements threaten to upend Republican strategy. Just as the Republican congressional retreat began, Trump’s pronouncement of torture’s effectiveness threatened to overshadow the entire event.
“This is going to be an unconventional presidency… and I think we’re going to see unconventional activities, like tweets and things like that, and I think that’s just something we’re all just going to have to get used to,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Thursday.
Trump’s opposition isn’t just going to get used to it. Protests erupted outside as Trump addressed the Republican faithful. It seems that the City of Brotherly Love doesn’t have much love for President Trump—thousands gathered to demonstrate against the newly sworn-in president.
The last protests of this size in Philadelphia were six months ago, when the Democratic National Convention came to town to nominate Hillary Clinton as its presidential nominee.
Now, as then, the protests had a diffuse and unfocused set of priorities—signs called for everything from denying Trump’s Cabinet nominees, to respecting black lives, to opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, to supporting transgender rights.
“The people, united, will never be defeated,” the protesters chanted, somewhat paradoxically.
But the protesters may have an unwitting ally in Trump himself.
If he keeps distracting Republicans with talk of torture and crowd sizes, the GOP may not get very much done this year at all.