Republican Strategist Michael Steel On What GOP Lawmakers Are Saying About Trump
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Republicans are walking a fine line over how much to criticize President Trump. There's the impeachment inquiry, the pullout of U.S. troops from northern Syria and a White House announcement - now retracted - that next year's G-7 summit would be at a Trump resort. Some moderate Republicans met with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney this weekend at Camp David. That's one indication of how troubled some lawmakers are. Here's another. Republican strategist Michael Steel, who was an aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, says his phone has been blowing up lately. I asked him what concerned Republicans the most.
MICHAEL STEEL: The situation in Syria and the abandonment of the Kurds who had been such loyal allies and such a critical force in containing - and what we thought at the time was defeating - ISIS. That was the thing that really bothered Republicans the most.
CHANG: Does it feel like now calculations among Republicans are changing somewhat when it comes to whether they will call out President Trump on something?
STEEL: I think congressional Republicans have been calculating the limits of his tolerance for dissent since he rode down that escalator three, four years ago. Now is the hour of maximum uncertainty, means it's the hour of maximum danger for people's political prospects. And I think the smart move right now is to make like a meerkat. Stay underground if you possibly can.
CHANG: A meerkat. Is that the thing that looks like a ferret?
STEEL: Yes, exactly.
CHANG: I see. But why do you think this is the maximum point of danger, as you put it? Is it because of just where we are in the election cycle? Or is there something particular about this moment now?
STEEL: I think that the Ukraine investigation and the fact that we are actually in an impeachment inquiry in the House. Even if the House Democrats haven't chosen to have a vote yet, they are taking testimony. The Intelligence Committee is conducting an inquiry. I think that means that the administration faces an existential threat in a way that they haven't in the past.
CHANG: How would you counsel a moderate Republican right now?
STEEL: The challenge here is that while independents are increasingly turning against the president, the base of the Republican Party continues to remain very strong for him. And so I think the way Republicans in tough districts, or tough states, have to thread the needle is by saying, yes, the president did something wrong - I don't think you're in very good position trying to pretend that he didn't - but it does not rise to the level of requiring his removal from office when we're less than a year from the American people, the voters, getting to make that decision.
CHANG: So you think moderate Republicans, or maybe any Republicans, should just go ahead and embrace the idea that President Trump did, in fact, suggest a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian president.
STEEL: I think that's the only way to deal with reality right now. Look. I think that House Democrats have made a series of errors in this investigation. I think that it is a very poor decision to continue holding these hearings behind closed doors. The idea that they are moving towards impeachment solely on the basis of the situation in the Ukraine is utterly untrue. This is obviously the result of a series of investigations, a series of outrages that they feel the president has committed. But I don't think anyone is in a good position insisting that the president did nothing wrong when it came to asking the Ukrainians to investigate either this conspiracy theory that the DNC server wound up in the Ukraine following the 2016 election or that they needed to reopen the investigation of Hunter Biden's involvement in the energy company in Ukraine.
CHANG: I want to play you something that President Trump said today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The Republicans have to get tougher and fight. We have some that are great fighters, but they have to get tougher and fight because the Democrats have tried to hurt the Republican Party for the election.
CHANG: What do you think of what the president said?
STEEL: I think it's entirely in keeping in character with President Trump. He always wants to be on offense. He never wants to concede air. And I don't think that that's a very good strategy for any Republican candidate who does not have the Teflon coating that President Trump has with Republican voters in particular.
CHANG: So do you think President Trump's insistence that Republicans hang together and fight this impeachment inquiry - do you think that that is a strategy that could hurt moderate Republicans who don't have Teflon coating right now?
STEEL: Yeah, I think it could definitely be a poor strategy because, particularly if there are further revelations - and it seems like another shoe drops every day or every other day in the situation - that could be increasingly difficult to defend. I don't think any House Republicans in a moderate district, in a difficult-to-defend district or a senator in a state that could swing the other way wants to be Wily Coyote and realize that there's no cliff under them anymore.
CHANG: Michael Steel is a Republican strategist.
Thank you very much for joining us today.
STEEL: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.