White House

With Trump, is the Twitter more powerful than the pulpit?

President enters office polling historically below his predecessors


The President possesses the bully pulpit.

Political analysts have penned entire dissertations about how an effective president serves as the chief whip in Congress. He makes calls behind the scenes and huddles with key lawmakers to spur movement on key legislative initiatives.

And new to the enterprise is how President Trump disciplined the country in the power of governing via Twitter.

What do lawmakers think about Trump’s medium of choice?

“I don’t want to give the president (sic) advice,” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, recently said. “I don’t want to be a tweet-ee.”

And therein lies the threat -- if it can be called that.

Will lawmakers tremble when Trump threatens to call them out publicly should they not back one of his legislative priorities or support a cabinet or judicial appointment?

The question centers on how much deference lawmakers will grant the president during his first days in office.

Trump enters as one of the most-unpopular presidents in four decades. He lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3million votes and failed to even crack 46 percent of the popular vote.

Twenty House Republicans represent districts Clinton carried.

Many congressional Republicans who ultimately supported Trump did so tepidly. Scores climbed on board after he vanquished Clinton. It was not much of a clarion endorsement. Rather, after eight years of President Obama, Republicans in Congress were buoyed by the opportunity of unified government.

With President Trump in the White House, Republicans have the opportunity to detonate ObamaCare, reverse the financial law known as Dodd-Frank and fillet a host of executive orders with which conservatives disagree. The GOP has a willing partner in the White House to perhaps drill deeply into revising the tax code for the first time in more than three decades.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow, called out Trump on multiple occasions -- even disinviting the GOP nominee from a rally in his home-state of Wisconsin after the appearance of the lewd Access Hollywood tape. But now the speaker stands behind the president foursquare.

A marriage of convenience for politics sake or is this a governing “coalition?” Unclear. But consider the tone of Ryan’s words directed at Trump during the campaign, to say nothing of what the president said then about the speaker.

But with these men now holding two of the three Constitutional offices of U.S. government, Ryan would find himself in a nearly untenable position were he to get crossways with the president now.

That could come. But for now, Ryan and most other Republicans, are on the train. 

The reasons? Trump enjoyed a moderate Electoral College victory. There was no popular vote mandate. Unsteady support from congressional Republicans. Plus, the entire House and one-third of the Senate faces re-election in two years (only eight of the those seats are held by Republicans.

Experts would argue that only two of those are possibly in play). Still, the potential toxicity of a president often filters down-ballot to members of his own party. Look at the Democrats in 1994 and 2010. Check out the Republicans in 2006.

So how high will congressional Republicans jump when President-elect Trump orders them to jump?

So far, the GOP has hops.

Consider what happened in the hours just before the Congress started on January 3. Rank-and-file House Republicans ignored the advice of Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and decided instead to defang the quasi-official Capitol Hill watchdog known as the Office of Congressional Ethics.

The OCE isn’t popular among lawmakers of either party. The office allows outside persons or groups to file ethics complaints against lawmakers -- which are sometimes unfounded and specious. But it’s bad optics for Congress to enfeeble an ethics steward and undercut potential whistleblowers.

The 115th Congress was due to convene at noon that day. Voting on the new ethics plan would be part of the House’s “rules package” and constitute one of the first votes of the year.

But that morning, Trump unleashed a Tweet storm, hectoring members of his own party.

“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, health care and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS.”

At a press briefing that morning, McCarthy told reporters there wasn’t a plan to revise the rules package despite a barrage of negative press overnight. But Mr. Trump’s badgering seemed to turn the tide. Granted, some lawmakers re-thought the proposal and backed off on their own.

But at 11:50 that morning, a mere ten minutes before the start of the Congress, the GOP yanked the ethics overhaul language from the rules plan.

It was done -- all via the Twitter pulpit.

A few days ago, the president proclaimed, “We’re going to have insurance for everybody.”

Such a pronouncement sent ripples through Capitol Hill, as Republicans scramble to concoct a replacement bill for ObamaCare. The president was careful to mention he didn’t envision “single-payer.” That’s a program in which the government operates the health system.

Some Republicans rushed to spin Trump’s line about “universal coverage.” But still, insuring more people is a goal of most policymakers, regardless of party.

“I think it’s a noble aspiration,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“The president speaks conceptually,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who’s crafting a replacement bill. “He believes they can drive down insurance premiums by insuring more people.”

It’s unclear whether this was just a line from the president, a goal or a command to Congress. And nobody is quite sure how this fits into that still-nebulous ObamaCare replacement bill, floating in the congressional ether.

“I understand they’re working on a plan and we’re eager to see it,” Cornyn said.

And then there is a potential jam on tax reform.

Trump fired a shot across the bow of the GOP proposal to craft a “border adjustable” tax for international business.

Congressional insiders argue that the adjustable border tax could produce $1 trillion in revenue by taxing imports and not exports.

The border adjustable tax provision is essential to Republican tax reform proposals because it would hypothetically fill the federal coffers.

That would fill fiscal vacuums created by the repeal of ObamaCare and offset major new spending on the military and infrastructure. But the president squelched the tax idea as too complex.

“I don’t love the plan,” said he told  The Wall Street Journal.

Congressional Republicans argue there’s still a way to work out the tax provisions. But thwarting the idea sent congressional Republicans scurrying for new ideas.

Of course, this sort of comment by a president arguing that he isn’t in favor of one proposal or another isn’t new. Presidents do that all the time to persuade and cajole members to do something else -- and threaten to veto and actually veto bills. But it’s unknown what powers of persuasion this President brings to the office.

The office. The Oval Office.

Trump certainly exercises his social media bona fides, unleashing blistering attacks on Twitter. But when you become president, the muscles augment with the power of the position.

There is no room in the Western World more intimidating than the Oval Office. It’s symbolizes the president’s broad capacities. And when members of Congress are summoned to the Oval Office for a tête-à-tête, a shiver sometimes ripples up their spine.

The most-powerful congressional committee chairman, senior senators and blustery lawmakers cower when beckoned for an audience with the president of the United States in the Oval Office.

Compare that to Twitter? 

The president sent his first Tweet from the official @POTUS account Friday afternoon, saying “On behalf of my entire family, THANK YOU!”

But just moments after Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office, the @POTUS Twitter account flipped to President Trump.

“@POTUS hasn’t tweeted yet,” read the notice at the time.

And lawmakers will watch to see how this goes.