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Trump's Drama-Filled August Only Made Life Tougher for GOP

The GOP limped into their August recess and after an eventful summer, the prospects of returning to Washington to start from a clean slate have vanquished.
Image: President Trump
This file photo shows President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White HouseAndrew Harrer / Pool via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — What did you do over your summer break?

If you're a congressional Republican, chances are you watched as President Donald Trump further complicated both his already rocky relationship with the legislative branch and the dicey prospects of achieving major accomplishments this fall.

Congress returns to Washington on Tuesday following a five week recess chock-full of news and events. Among other things, the president attacked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as high-profile GOP senators like Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. He forced members of his party to respond to racially charged comments that seemed sympathetic to white nationalists after the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. And he openly encouraged a GOP primary challenger in a volatile Senate race.

Republican lawmakers limped into their five-week August recess on the heels of a high-profile defeat of their plan to repeal and replace parts of Obamacare. And after an eventful summer break, the prospects of returning to Washington to start from a clean slate have all but vanished.

Here’s a look at what happened in August:

Aug. 3: The full Congress begins its summer recess after the Senate holds its final votes.

Aug. 9: Trump responds to a McConnell speech critical of the president for having “excessive expectations.”

Aug. 10: The president more aggressively attacks the Senate Republican leader, telling him to “get back to work” and repeal Obamacare.

Aug. 11: Trump tweets an article about the political consequences GOP Sens. Dean Heller and Jeff Flake are facing for opposing him.

Aug. 12: The president delivers his first statement about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying “many sides” are to blame.

Aug. 14: Trump responds to the widespread criticism of his initial response to Charlottesville by delivering a second statement at the White House saying “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Aug. 15: Any goodwill Trump received for his second statement is seemingly undone during a combative press conference during which he again blames both sides for the protests that killed one woman and equates Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee with George Washington.

Aug. 17: The president tweets his support for Kelli Ward, the GOP challenger to Flake, attacks South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and calls for the preservation of Confederate statues.

Aug. 22: The New York Times reports that McConnell has privately expressed doubts Trump can salvage his presidency. Trump also threatened a government shutdown if Congress does not approve his proposed wall along the southern border.

Aug. 23: One night after alluding to Flake at a rally in Phoenix, Trump tweets he is “not a fan” of the Arizona senator. He also continues to call on Senate GOP to change the filibuster rules, which McConnell has ruled out.

Aug. 25: Trump fires back at Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker on Twitter after he raises concerns about Trump's competence and stability. Hurricane Harvey makes landfall in Texas.

Aug. 28: At a press conference at the White House, Trump again raises the threat of a government shutdown if Congress does not approve funding for the wall.

What has softened the tone following the inflamed passions displayed after Charlottesville, however, is the unprecedented flooding in Texas that has killed dozens and caused billions of dollars in damage. Lawmakers and White House officials are working to swiftly deliver initial relief funding for the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Helping those impacted by the storm may be one of the rare times this year that Congress comes together to pass legislation with an overwhelming amount of support from both parties.

Related: Washington Works to Deliver Harvey Relief Aid

But the goodwill may not erase all the thorny issues Congress will have to tackle in the coming months. Tax reform and infrastructure top the list of legislative undertakings Republicans still hope to get to this year, on top of must-dos like increasing the debt limit and passing another temporary spending bill to avoid a government shutdown.

“Members are going to come back from recess less inclined than ever before to work with Donald Trump,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked in both Sen. Marco Rubio’s Congressional office and for his presidential campaign. “It’s always been an awkward relationship, and he seems intent on making it a poisonous one, too.”

That may be particularly true for Senate Republicans, whom Trump targeted during the month of August. The president has taken direct or indirect jabs at at least six of them in the weeks since the GOP plan to repeal parts of Obamacare failed by a single vote.

One, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., proved to be the deciding vote against the GOP’s health care legislation. Graham has also been a consistent thorn in the president’s side. Two others, Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Flake, are fighting for their political lives in tough re-election races. And Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., previously one of the president's biggest allies, received the president's scorn for questioning Trump's competence.

But sitting atop the list of notable Trump targets is McConnell, whose relationship with the president grew colder this month. A New York Times report says the pair has not spoken since a contentious phone call following some McConnell's remark that the president had "excessive expectations" of Congress.

McConnell said in a statement that he and the president continue to work together and "anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly not part of the conversation."

But the pair have very publicly been on different pages over the past month. Trump’s tweeted response to the "expectations" comment asking why McConnell couldn’t get Obamacare repeal done after seven years emboldened McConnell’s critics on the right and even garnered some sympathy from those normally critical of the president, like Graham. “I like Mitch, but for eight years we’ve been saying we’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare; it’s not like we made this up over night,” he said in a radio interview on Fox News.

Then there have been Trump's attacks on endangered Republicans up for re-election next fall. Topping the list is Flake, who has become one of the president’s top targets following the recent release of a book highly critical of both the president and the members of the Republican Party who support him.

Flake’s reelection could be key in the GOP’s chances keeping the Senate, which is essential for them to deliver on most big-ticket legislative promises. Trump’s tweet in support of Kelli Ward, the Republican challenging Flake, invites a potentially messy primary race that will take time and effort — as well as money that Republicans, including groups allied with McConnell, could be spending on other close races. Heller's race is an example and one in which Trump also floated a primary challenger.

Related: Why Dean Heller is the Senate's Most Vulnerable Republican

"I think the president feels that's a strategy that works for him," House Speaker Paul Ryan said when asked about Trump's criticisms of Flake and McCain. "I would just say I think it's important we stay unified as Republicans to complete our agenda."

And the intra-party attacks come at a time Trump could use GOP friends more than ever before. Members of his party are feeling increasingly emboldened to separate themselves from the White House following the president’s widely condemned response to Charlottesville. Sen. Corker, normally a reliable ally for the president, said Trump "recently has not demonstrated that he understands the character of this nation” after saying white nationalists are only partially to blame for the violence that killed one woman and wounded 19 others.

Still, some Republicans are skeptical that any of Trump’s summer controversies will have an impact on the legislative agenda. The party has for years advocated for tax reform, and members could see money and jobs come to their districts if an infrastructure bill gets approved.

"Every member of Congress has a project in their district that will be in the infrastructure bill and every member has tons of businesses who want globally competitive rates,” said Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump during his campaign. “The president will play almost no role in their votes. These issues are proven provincial, nothing more.”