One of the things that is sometimes said as an argument for electing Democrats to office is that Republicans have done nothing to check or restrain President Trump. If you know how Washington works and you’ve watched events there closely, though, this isn’t really true. Just because something doesn’t happen in a public, theatrical way does not mean it never happened. The ending of the family-separation controversy is only the latest example of this. But Trump’s attitude has made it harder for Republicans to convince the voters of this.
As I explained a month into Trump’s term, “checks and balances are not always public and visible. Every elected official, even Trump, operates under constraints, and responds to messages delivered privately or implicitly. Things that never happen are just as important as things that are attempted and thwarted. And personnel is policy: A leader surrounded by conservative people will be more likely to do conservative things, a leader surrounded by competent people will be more likely to do competent things, and a leader surrounded by normal people will be more likely to do normal things.”
Executive branch personnel is indeed part of the story, and the gradual diminishment of the Bannon-esque circle within Trump’s Administration has given him more stability and fewer bad ideas – though that circle’s influence, especially in the person of Stephen Miller, was still very much on display in the decisions that led to the family separations at the border. But even aside from what his own Executive Branch advisors are bringing him in terms of options, Congress still matters, too. It’s just that the messages delivered to Trump that matter are typically not delivered in public, at least not in so many words.
Ramesh Ponnuru has detailed examples of this in Paul Ryan’s approach: Ryan has partnered with Trump and offered him a policy agenda that substituted for Trump’s inchoate urges, and that alone has drawn Trump more in the direction of a conventional Republican agenda. It’s also Ryan’s style to settle business ‘within the family’ behind closed doors, and try to put on a unified face to the public – an approach that dovetails with how sensitive Trump is to public criticism. Put simply, when Trump takes direct heat in public from Republicans (like Mark Sanford or Jeff Flake or John McCain) he tends to fire back at them. When Trump thinks other people are getting too much credit, he tends to undercut them. So if you want to influence his behavior, you have to approach softly and privately. You’ll notice that often when Ryan or Marco Rubio or other un-Trump-ish Republicans have vented their disagreements with Trump, it more commonly has been after he has done something they could no longer stop.
But consider also how the family-separation controversy ended with a splutter, as Trump backed down with an executive order yesterday that not only changed course effectively conceded that a lot of the Administration’s previous arguments had been wrong. Why did that happen? Partly, of course, because of the public outcry. But also partly because Republicans in Congress were visibly scurrying away from Trump’s policy rather than lining up to defend it. Ben Sasse called it “wicked”. Ted Cruz proposed a legislative fix. If Trump’s approach had truly been something that Congressional Republicans wanted and were comfortable defending publicly, they would have given him more cover. As with George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, the mere fact that Trump’s allies on the Hill were abandoning him undoubtedly contributed to the rapid climbdown not long after a meeting with Ryan and the House leadership team.
The downside of the emphasis on working behind the scenes and tiptoeing around Trump’s explosive ego, of course, is that Republicans who want to rein in Trump’s behavior have to accept the tradeoff of not being able to show or tell the voters that they have done so. That leaves their Democratic opponents free to claim that they are all secret Trumpists or wallflowers. Which will not play well in many competitive states and districts this fall.
The other irony in this whole picture is that Trump thrives on conflict, sometimes for its own sake. If Democrats take control of Congress in November, there will be far less incentive for Trump to moderate his behavior to keep his alliance with Congressional Republicans in line, and far more temptation for him to go Full Trump, investigations and shutdowns notwithstanding. Voters who think Trump is unchecked now may actually be in for an unpleasant surprise when Paul Ryan is gone from the scene.