How do Republicans who don’t seem to care much for Donald Trump gently rebuke him without provoking his wrath or alienating his supporters?
They register a complaint about the tweets — or his attacks on the press and the FBI, or his mollifying of white supremacists — before pivoting to how, by and large, they’re delighted with his policies.
Those words are emerging as an operative phrase for many conservatives trying to reconcile themselves with Trumpism. Nearly 18 months into the Trump presidency, it’s both a verbal crutch toward fragile Republican Party harmony and a rueful but not exactly complete explanation of why most won’t abandon Trump.
Mitt Romney — who in six years has gone from Trump-endorsed presidential nominee to Trump scold to Trump-endorsed Senate candidate in Utah — acknowledged last week in an interview with NBC News that there are times he may have to call out the president for saying something “highly divisive or racist or misogynistic,” and wouldn’t consider Trump a role model for his grandchildren, “on the basis of his personal style.”
But, Romney said, “I believe his policies have been, by and large, a good deal better than I might have expected.”
Several days later, former House speaker John Boehner, while enjoying a Bloody Mary onstage at a policy conference in Michigan, sardonically assessed what Trump’s blend of nationalism and populism has meant for Republicans: "There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”
But, Boehner added, “If you can peel away the noise and the tweets and all that, which is virtually impossible to do, but if you peel all this away, from a Republican standpoint the things that he’s doing, by and large, are really good things.”
Boehner’s successor as speaker, Paul Ryan, has been more reverential to Trump. He stayed stubbornly on a tax policy–centric message throughout last year’s most turbulent moments — the firing of FBI director James Comey, the Russia investigation — and will be remembered for his reluctance to call out Trump’s behavior forcefully on other occasions. Even so, Ryan, who’s never had a politically abrasive style, has offered some mild criticism of Trump’s tweets. “I would do a few less tweets,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after announcing his retirement in April.
“But,” Ryan added, “I am happy with the direction where we’re going on our policy issues, absolutely. … There are times we don’t agree with each other. You know that. He and I know that. But, by and large, we want to go in the same direction. … You’re never going to have complete alignment.”
Sen. Marco Rubio — a target of Trump’s mockery in 2016 — has criticized or pushed back against the president more substantively, especially as of late: on negotiations with China, on the role of the FBI in 2016, and on the ultimate value of the tax law Trump signed.
But he also noted, in a December interview with USA Today, that, "By and large, it’s been a good working relationship. I don't agree with him on everything. But that would be true no matter who had won this election."
Despite Trump’s character issues, schoolyard taunts, and Twitter antics, Republicans have found him a willing partner on most policy issues — immigration and trade being two exceptions, depending on the wing of the party. They’re pleased with his judicial appointments, his rolling back of regulations, and his support for the tax code changes Ryan drove.
Even Trump’s loudest Republican critics in Washington — most notably Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska — nonetheless vote in favor of his preferred agenda more than 80% of the time. Those who choose their words more carefully do so out of fear of a primary challenge inspired by a presidential tweet or sniping from far-right pundits and of turning off independent and Democratic voters in a general election. And others still are carefully calculating their future in the party.
“I think for them, the needle they have to thread is being able to speak out when they can when they disagree with the president,” Republican strategist Garrett Ventry told BuzzFeed News, “but not to lash out so far that he lashes out back at you.”