Conservatives are warning Donald Trump not to get wobbly on his campaign pledges.
The caution comes after the president-elect on Tuesday abandoned his vow to prosecute Hillary Clinton, the latest sign of the break between the candidate who was elected president and the man who will be sworn in come January.
Since his historic, shocking election win over Clinton, Trump has softened some of his key campaign promises, sending mixed signals about his commitment to a border wall and a quick repeal of Obamacare.
Trump shocked his base when a senior adviser suggested he had reneged on his pledge to have his attorney general appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Trump himself later admitted in an interview with reporters from The New York Times that prosecuting Clinton is “just not something that I feel very strongly about,” insisting he’d rather unify the country by avoiding such a divisive move and expressing confidence that his supporters won’t be disappointed by his reversal.
“Well, so much for ‘locking her up,’ I guess,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a Fox News interview, arguing that Clinton should be investigated “with an independent view.”
“I can understand wanting to put the election behind us and heal the nation, but I do hope all the things President-elect Trump said about how crooked she was — well, we just don’t let it go without some serious effort to see if the law was truly violated,” Graham continued, as he appeared to be positioning himself to the right of Trump. “I think that would be a mistake.”
In interviews with POLITICO, other conservatives highlighted issues such as health care and immigration reform as non-negotiable for the nation’s incoming deal-maker-in-chief.
So far, they’re willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. They’re pointing to some of his early moves as president-elect as evidence that he’s on the right track to carrying out the agenda he campaigned on.
And some are saying that fellow Republicans shouldn’t read too much into his reversal on Clinton. “I think that’s all political rhetoric to try to keep his base happy,” said Rick Tyler, former communications director for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s failed White House bid.
But conservatives are putting Trump on watch for his other campaign pledges.
In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Trump conceded that his infamous border wall may be part fence. And congressional Republicans, who control the House and Senate, have suggested the “wall” may comprise an actual wall, fencing and “invisible fence” technology, like a patrol of drones.
In the same interview, he also indicated a desire to maintain key components of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, such as coverage for pre-existing conditions and the age 26 threshold for young adults to stay on their parents’ plans, and contended it wouldn’t be repealed until a replacement is ready, contradicting his pledge to repeal the legislation on Day One.
“So far it looks like he’s done what most presidents-elect do, which is when they get elected they modify their positions,” Tyler said, downplaying the significance of Trump’s shifts. “The question is he’s promised to repeal and replace Obamacare. Now he’s talking about modifying Obamacare. I guess the question is what will those modifications look like. If he does nothing on the border, I think that would be a serious breach of trust.”
Trump released a video Monday of his top legislative priorities, which conspicuously lacked mentions of the border wall and Obamacare repeal.
“Trump is a blank slate ideologically. And can only be counted on to do what is best for Trump in any given situation like the Machiavellian he is,” conservative radio host Steve Deace said, warning that “his time in office will rise and fall by the conservatives who got him there getting him to deliver on his promises.”
“They now have a seat at the table, and he wouldn’t be there without them, so they must get him to deliver the way George W. Bush never did,” he continued, giving Trump credit for purging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, his allies and lobbyists from the transition team. “But just because we’re happy the Marxists are gone doesn’t mean Trump suddenly had a character transplant. Conservatives will need to be diligent.”
Luther Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Iowa conservative who serves as president and CEO of The Family Leader, expressed confidence and optimism in Trump to fulfill his pledges.
“If personnel is the beginning of policy, we believe that he’s laying the groundwork to shake up a lot of the Washington establishment and the bureaucracy of the federal government,” Head said.
Vander Plaats expects Trump to follow through on his commitment to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices and repeal the Johnson Amendment, which bars churches and other tax-exempt organizations from engaging in political campaigns.
“Once the President Trump — versus President-elect Trump — and the Congress is working and he’s in administrative mode, I think the people, his base, others, they will find ways to remind him of ‘hey, this was a promise, we expect you to deliver,’” he said. “And they’re also gonna give him I think a little bit of leeway for his own leadership right now. I think most of us know this country needs to be turned around, and we’re hoping and praying that he can deliver on turning this country around.”
Tyler, the former Cruz spokesman, used economic terms to convey his message to Trump and the fine line he’s walking.
“He basically has a surplus of political capital in his base. And what he seems to be doing is trading that political currency for establishment currency,” Tyler explained. “And he can do that, as long as he keeps his accounts balanced. But he’s got to be careful that he doesn’t bankrupt himself of political capital or he’ll have no mandate to do anything.”
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