Under the Dome

How do you solve a problem like Trump? NC senator dismisses his ‘tone,’ but embraces his agenda

Thom Tillis has spent much of the summer trying to push back on President Donald Trump’s harsh language and attacks on fellow Republicans.

Even after all that criticism, Tillis – a first-term Republican U.S. senator from Huntersville – would prefer to spend the fall passing Trump’s legislation.

“I have not deviated once from any nomination or any vote that the president happens to be supportive of,” Tillis said. “This has more to do with tone and message and discipline.”

“This” is a series of statements and Twitter posts by Tillis, distancing himself from Trump in connection to the president’s reaction to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and on Trump’s slams of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Tillis, like some other Republicans from swing states and districts, is trying to navigate a difficult path. Facing what may be a challenging and costly re-election contest in 2020, he needs to be able to convince enough voters who are unhappy with the president that he was willing to stand up to Trump. And yet, he needs to be careful not to anger Trump’s hardcore supporters, who make up a significant portion of the Republican base.

Though his overall popularity ratings have fallen into the 30s, Trump remains very popular with Republicans with 79 percent approving of his job performance, according to Gallup Daily. That is down 10 points from January, but still a group Tillis and other Republicans cannot afford to alienate.

Tillis introduced legislation to provide protection for special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, but has been careful not to portray it as an anti-Trump measure.

The Special Counsel Integrity Act — which would allow a fired special counsel to have his or her dismissal reviewed by a three-judge panel within 14 days and which is retroactively dated so as to apply to Mueller – was introduced Aug. 3, just hours before the Senate departed for August recess.

Tillis presented the bill to co-sponsor Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, one day earlier. The pair have a relationship from their work on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as co-chairs of the Senate’s Human Rights Caucus and from the chamber’s Wednesday morning prayer breakfasts.

Coons was interested and figured he’d study the bill over the break. Tillis wanted it introduced much faster – and had done the legwork to answer Coons’ concerns.

“He doesn’t just want to introduce a bill to talk about it. He wants to introduce a bill to get it passed,” Coons said.

Some on the right, including longtime Tillis antagonist and radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, saw the bill as a critique of Trump, who has criticized the Justice Department investigation and its scrutiny of whether Trump’s associates have ties to Russian representatives.

But Tillis, who sees the bill as a way for the legislative branch to win back some of the power it has ceded to the executive over the past 60 years, says he wants to get potential distractions off the board – to clear the way for legislating.

“I try to eliminate distractions. I think some folks are trying to create additional distractions over the Russia investigation,” he said. “I don’t have any evidence to suggest the White House had any intention of doing it (firing Mueller), but it’s a helpful way for us to take it off the table.”

Tillis is hardly alone in moving to distance himself from Trump. Many of his Republican Senate colleagues, some of whom have been under attack from the president after failing to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care law, have been critical of Trump.

“I don’t actually see a big divergence on policy between Republicans in Congress and Trump,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime GOP operative and veteran of the George W. Bush White House. “Where the divergence has occurred is on style. Obviously, some people have been uncomfortable with style after moments like Charlottesville.”

Since white supremacists and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville, leaving one person dead, and Trump offered a mix of condemnation and praise for both sides, several Republican senators have gone public with their criticism, often going further than Tillis.

Bob Corker of Tennessee said Trump “has not demonstrated that he understands the character of this nation.” South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the lone black Republican in the Senate, said Trump’s “moral authority is compromised” by his response to Charlottesville. Susan Collins of Maine said she is unsure if Trump would be her party’s 2020 nominee. The relationship between McConnell and Trump has become increasingly fraught, according to reports.

Despite those critiques and Trump attacks on Arizona’s Jeff Flake and John McCain, Nevada’s Dean Heller and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, for starters, Tillis is not in favor of censuring the president as some Democrats would like.

“It’s time for us to move on,” Tillis said. “That would be an example of us spending time on something that would be at the expense of fixing health care or moving on to infrastructure.”

Much of the summer, however, has been dealing with distractions, many of them created seemingly out of thin air by Trump instead of a focus on the issues Tillis believes Republicans were sent to Washington to solve.

“Health care, taxes and infrastructure, homeland security, national security, economic security, if my comment doesn’t relate to any of those things, it shouldn’t be a comment I should make right now — until we start making real progress,” Tillis said.

Tillis voted for every iteration of the Republicans’ health care plans, liked what he has heard from Trump on infrastructure and praised Trump’s Afghanistan policy announced Monday evening in a primetime address.

Said Coons: “Let’s be clear: He is a conservative Republican.”

“I’ve supported the president’s initiatives. I’m there on heath care, taxes, infrastructure. I think we can make progress on border security, immigration,” said Tillis, who has some disagreement with Trump over what a border wall should look like and briefly held up a Trump nominee over guest worker visas. “I want to be a part of helping him be successful.”

That’s what the Republican base wants to see as well, according to North Carolina county GOP chairmen.

“There’s absolutely a ‘drain the swamp’ mentality from the Republican grassroots. Some of that bleeds over with senators and congressmen. We with the grassroots can get frustrated,” said Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party.

“The biggest push back that I have felt is the frustration at some of our Republican elected officials in general is the failure to take steps to remove Obamacare. That’s where the loudest voices I hear are. We sent you to do one job. It’s still not done.”

Tillis said the Senate could tackle health care again, something Trump has urged. But the chances of moving the Trump agenda through the Senate could depend on the president not creating messes that senators feel compelled to clean up.

Tillis did not mention Trump by name in his response to Charlottesville, but he put out pointed statements after the violence in Virginia and after Trump’s wild Trump Tower press conference where he said there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“When it comes to white supremacists & neo-nazis, there can be no equivocating: they’re propagators of hate and bigotry. Period,” Tillis tweeted on Aug. 15.

“The hate, bigotry and violence on display in #Charlottesville is despicable and represents the complete opposite of what America stands for,” Tillis tweeted on Aug. 12.

Jennings, the GOP operative, said Charlottesville “has been the clearest, most recent divergence on style, that has strained the president’s relationship with Congress. But if you look at what has happened since then, he made the speech on Afghanistan ... from what I can tell, it’s being applauded by Republican congressional leadership. He’s moved on from Charlottesville and onto the next thing.”

“It looks like Republicans are on board with the next thing.”

Tillis sent out a four-tweet statement on Aug. 10, defending McConnell after Trump attacked the Kentucky Republican. He released a statement on July 25 defending Sessions, a former colleague in the Senate, after Trump’s weeklong attack on his own Cabinet member.

Tillis’ critiques haven’t drawn a response from Trump, but he has caught fire from some on the fight, notably from Ingraham, the conservative talk show host.

Earlier this month on her radio show, Ingraham lumped Tillis with McCain and Flake as impediments to the president’s agenda. McCain effectively killed the Senate’s latest attempt at passing health care bill when he voted no. Flake released a book calling on Republicans to stand up to Trump.

“They’re so frustrated by Republicans who aren’t supporting the president’s agenda or Republicans who feel like their sole mission is to get a favorable editorial by the New York Times devoted to them and them only,” Ingraham said during an interview with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel.

“It’s not just Jeff Flake, there’s McCain, there’s Thom Tillis. These people are out here morning, noon and night and it’s ‘we have to show that we’re independent of this president. We have to show that we can stand on our own.’”

In a tweet, Ingraham called Tillis “another pro-amnesty” Republican “more interested in boosting his standing in @nytimes than helping American citizens.” She also criticized his special counsel bill, claiming Tillis was “(a)nother Republican senator who doesn’t understand that there are three branches of government.”

Tillis shot back at both of those critiques in real time, even suggesting Ingraham needed a “Civics 101” class – showing he’s not afraid to mix it up with the president or high-profile conservatives.

“There’s frustration,” Tillis said. “There’s frustration among people that want us to produce a result, so I’m obsessed with trying to stay on what those results are.”

Katie Glueck of McClatchy contributed to this report.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; @MurphinDC

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer