Does President Donald Trump want to wallop or woo Democrats?
No one seems to really know, and the answer could be key to his legislative agenda — and the 2018 midterm elections.
Trump’s aides have teamed up with the National Republican Senatorial Committee to target vulnerable Democrats and plan presidential travel to help the GOP maintain its congressional majorities during the elections that are 14 months away.
White House officials, particularly political director Bill Stepien and legislative affairs head Marc Short, have had regular conversations with aides at the NRSC, according to people familiar with the talks. Internally, Trump officials have discussed the president taking trips to 10 states to push tax reform and attack Democrats in states where Trump enjoys wide support. Before he left the White House, Steve Bannon had also plotted with other White House officials about “tough votes” for Democrats — and how to make them happen, a Bannon ally said.
Among the most vulnerable in the eyes of the White House: Sens. Joe Donnelly, Tammy Baldwin, Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp.
But, as shown Wednesday, Trump is a wild card — and seems increasingly inclined to work with Democrats.
Trump took a soft touch during a tax reform event with Heitkamp, who is among the most at-risk Democrats in a state that Trump carried by 36 points in November.
It was Heitkamp who asked to hitch a ride on Air Force One and appear with Trump in North Dakota during a trip partially meant to target the senator, according to White House and congressional aides. And the White House said yes.
“She’s a good woman,” Trump said, leading her to the stage and asking her to support his tax plan. “You listening, Heidi? She’s listening. She heard that. We’re not going to put her on the spot. I’m not doing it.”
Trump, who fashions himself a dealmaker and who often cares more about personal chemistry than political ideology, has grown increasingly frustrated with Republicans and has told advisers he believes he can work with Democrats on issues like tax reform and infrastructure.
He is tired of being associated with not much passing in Congress. Some of his advisers, like real estate investor Tom Barrack, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, have urged him to strike a tone of moderation and remember his days as a New York negotiator, according to people familiar with White House dynamics.
“The President is committed to getting things done — tax relief for middle-class America, responsible immigration reform and making sure Americans are protected,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his press secretary. “He wants to work with Republicans and Democrats to move this country forward.”
On Wednesday, he quickly took a debt and funding deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, stunning his Republican colleagues who argued otherwise.
“We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One, explaining his deal and seeming to forget GOP leadership. Trump appeared to give Schumer something of a man-hug in the Oval Office, as aides looked on grimacing.
Trump is expected to meet Thursday with a number of Democrats on a New York and New Jersey infrastructure project, including Schumer again, Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other Republican House members.
Trump’s light treatment of Heitkamp particularly frustrated officials at the Republican National Committee and NRSC, who have worked to attack the North Dakota senator, according to several Republican officials, describing private conversations around Washington.
They are coming to terms with the fact that Trump may not be a reliable campaigner — and some are freshly questioning whether he is even a Republican, and whether he is committed to helping the party, the officials said. Republican officials outside the White House were taken aback about the Air Force One trip with Heitkamp.
Republicans asking the White House for Trump to be more supportive of the party have gotten something of a shrug, said two GOP officials describing private conversations.
Trump has not always relished travel if it’s not about him. And it is more difficult to attack candidates when Trump is praising them, Republican officials say. “He has spent much of his time attacking Republicans,” one prominent activist said. “It almost seems like he enjoys that more.”
After he called on Sen. Claire McCaskill last week to vote for tax reform or lose her seat, some Republicans said privately they sighed with relief. “He went after a Democrat? Ooh I’m astonished,” said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. “I thought he goes after Republicans.”
McCaskill said she skipped the event because she was out of state. “For him, that was not tough,” she said in an interview about Trump’s attack, smiling.
For vulnerable Democratic senators, the Trump dynamic poses risks and rewards.
Tester, a former party campaign strategist, said “of course” he expects Trump to soon hold an event in Montana, but insisted it doesn’t make “any difference whatsoever” on his reelection prospects or the prospects for backing tax reform.
“If he’s trying to push me into going somewhere I don’t know, if I don’t want to go there I’m not going,” Tester said. He said he’d consider taking a ride on Air Force One if it fit in with his congressional schedule.
Manchin, perhaps the closest congressional Democrat to Trump, said if it was a policy event and not a political rally, he’d attend a tax reform event in West Virginia with Trump. Manchin is one of just three Senate Democrats to abstain from joining a Democratic letter asking the GOP to back off its current, party-line approach.
“He’s always invited to West Virginia. I just think as an American when the president comes and visits your state, they want me to be somewhere I’ll be there,” said Manchin, who Trump has considered for Cabinet positions.
Appearing with Trump will probably draw Heitkamp more support than boos, said Marvin Nelson, who ran for governor as a Democrat and was thrashed by more than 50 points in 2016. While no fan of Trump, Nelson said he was glad Heitkamp flew with the president.
“I would say anytime a North Dakota senator didn’t get on Air Force One and share about our state’s needs, it would negligent at least,” Nelson said. “It would be silly to resist an opportunity to reach out and cooperate.”
And Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist, said George W. Bush often used Air Force One to woo Democrats like Ben Nelson — and that if Heitkamp doesn’t vote with Trump, he can still criticize her.
Heitkamp appeared on stage briefly with Trump, looking mildly uncomfortable — but shrugging and smiling nonetheless. She later issued a lengthy statement, saying the “devil is in the details” of his plan.
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