As President Donald Trump and his advisers take aim at some of America’s closest allies amid tense disputes over trade, congressional Republicans largely stood by the president Monday, insisting they were not worried about a possible deterioration of relations with the West.
A weekend of bellicose remarks by the president and his aides — including unusually personal attacks against the Canadian prime minister — left some Republican commentators fuming that congressional leaders were unwilling to speak out in defense of the world order that has defined U.S. foreign policy for three-quarters of a century.
However, Senate Republican leaders did stand up to Trump in one respect: They have agreed to amend a defense policy bill by tacking on a bipartisan measure to restore penalties on the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE. The Trump administration announced a deal last week to ease sanctions on the firm, which U.S. intelligence officials regard as a national security threat.
But a separate, much more sweeping bipartisan measure that would limit Trump’s authority to impose tariffs on allies such as Canada, Mexico and the European Union remained in limbo Monday, as Senate Republican leaders appeared to be maneuvering to block it. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, told reporters he did not think the limits were necessary.
“The chance of getting a presidential signature on this at this point, I don’t think is good,” Cornyn said, adding, “I don’t think having that fight right now is necessary.”
The back and forth over the Senate trade measures came as Washington was grappling with just how far Trump had strayed from the traditional Republican embrace of free trade. At a tense weekend meeting of leaders of the Group of 7 nations, the president criticized tariffs imposed on American goods as “ridiculous and unacceptable” and vowed to retaliate with additional levies beyond the steel and aluminum tariffs already in place.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada pushed back, Trump accused him of being “weak” and “dishonest.” The White House trade adviser, Peter Navarro, followed up on Sunday by declaring on television that there is a “special place in hell” for foreign leaders who cross the president. Trump weighed in again Sunday night, with a fresh round of tweets accusing Canada and the European Union of unfair trade practices.
The president’s Republican critics were horrified.
“TRUMP disgraced the Presidency and the United States at the G-7 summit,” Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said on Twitter. “From his slovenly appearance to his unpreparedness, ignorance and arrogance, he beclowned himself. The Republican majority is filled with cowards who are servile supplicants to the most unfit POTUS ever.”
And Joe Scarborough, the former congressman and MSNBC host who like Schmidt is a member of the Never Trump wing of the Republican Party, laced into congressional Republicans for their silence, singling out Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.
“God help us,” Scarborough said on Twitter. “Their silence is damning enough. But the Senate Majority Leader calling this the best time ever for conservatives is vile. History will be brutal in its telling of their cowardice.”
But on Capitol Hill, most Republicans came to the defense of Trump. Several said it would be unseemly to criticize the president as he was heading into delicate negotiations on Tuesday in Singapore with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.
“My concern is we finish the negotiations with North Korea, and we get good trade deals for the United States of America,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
“We know the president’s got an unconventional style, but so far it seems to be working for him,” Cornyn said, adding that he was unconcerned about how the other leaders received Trump’s remarks. “They’re big boys and girls,” he said.
They were less forgiving toward Navarro.
“I think if Mr. Navarro worked for me,” Cornyn said, “I’d give him a stern talking to.”
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, agreed: “I thought he should’ve kept his big mouth shut because I don’t think that helps us inform policy, and I think frankly it was out of line.”
Trade has been a prickly issue between Trump and his fellow Republicans; many conservatives count themselves as free-trade backers and are deeply uneasy about Trump’s decision to impose steep tariffs on metals imported from the European Union, Canada and Mexico, as well as tariffs on as much as $150 billion worth of Chinese goods.
“There is clearly a concern with a lot of free-trade conservatives in our conference about the present track that we’re on and where it could end up going,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s No. 3 Republican. “But at the moment, everybody is giving the president the benefit of the doubt.”
Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, echoed Thune, saying, “My position is you have to give the president flexibility.”
The push to limit Trump’s authority to impose tariffs is being spearheaded by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa. They pushed ahead with the legislation, introducing it last week, even after the president urged them not to.
The bill would require the approval of Congress when the president cites national security as a reason for imposing tariffs, as Trump has done with the metals tariffs he has proposed for imported steel and aluminum and the tariffs on Chinese goods. Corker and Toomey are trying to attach the measure to the defense policy bill, which the Senate is considering this week.
But in addition to the cool reception the idea has gotten from Senate Republican leaders, they face another stumbling block: The Constitution requires that all revenue bills such as the Corker-Toomey bill originate in the House. “The way forward on that is not yet clear to me,” Toomey said Monday, “but we are determined to get a vote.”