But Hill Republicans are girding to treat Trump the third-time nominee the same way they did Trump the neophyte candidate and then president. They’re distancing themselves and downplaying his remarks, which touch on policy stresses like his urge to end Obamacare and political grievances like his vow to come down “hard” on MSNBC for its unfavorable coverage.
“He is almost a stream of consciousness,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of only three Senate Republicans who will remain in office after voting to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial — the other four have either already left or plan to next year. It’s “analogous to when every day he would tweet,” Cassidy added, “and 99 percent of the time it never came to anything.”
Even so, Trump’s return threatens to spark the same clashes with the Hill GOP that took a heavy political toll on the party, perhaps to an even stronger degree than his first term. Some potential flashpoints are evident in his agenda: Trump is likely to tap nominees who rankle Senate Republican leaders and pursue a polarizing bid to reshape the civil service into a less independent force.
Other sources of tension will be political. Trump could try to force an ouster of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, if the Kentucky Republican even tries to keep the top job under another Trump presidency. House Republicans could see their own leadership shakeup if Trump is elected, since the former president has the power to purge a leader he dislikes.
“One thing I’m pretty certain of is that the leadership is all up in the air. And I don’t think any of them survive after this term,” said Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), a Trump ally who recently began airing public criticisms of Speaker Mike Johnson.
Trump’s first four years as president were a time of nearly constant tension within the establishment GOP, which wanted another nominee in 2016 but gradually fell in line behind him. Those stresses boiled over after the violent riot of Jan. 6, 2021, with many Republicans savaging Trump for stoking the Capitol insurrection and 17 Republicans in both chambers opposing him at his second impeachment trial.
Most of those 17 Republicans will be gone from Congress by the end of 2024. Those who will remain are slowly resurrecting a familiar dynamic: pushing aside worries that he’ll lose again to Biden and minimizing his online screeds and less palatable policy proposals.
“I’m under no illusions what that would be like,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who served as the GOP whip during Trump’s first two years as president and voted to acquit Trump. “If it’s Biden and Trump, I’m gonna be supporting Trump. But that’s obviously not without its challenges.”
The retiring Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump at two impeachment trials, put it more bluntly. He recalled meeting with a health secretary during Trump’s administration to delve into the president’s policies: “They had nothing. No proposal, no outlines, no principles.”
“He says a lot of stuff that he has no intention of actually doing,” Romney said of Trump. “At some point, you stop getting worried about what he says and recognize: We’ll see what he does.”
Trump is paying little heed to how Republicans on Capitol Hill are reacting to his candidacy or plans for a second term. While only 13 of the 49 Republican senators have endorsed Trump, he has racked up over 80 House GOP endorsements and the list is expected to grow. In a statement, Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said the former president’s “second term will be one for the ages” and attacked Biden.
Even for those who liked Trump’s policies during his term, his related slew of controversies is an inescapable part of the deal.
“We have a lot of people on our side that utilize Donald Trump for their political benefit,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said, people who “get really tired of answering questions about Donald Trump. And I don’t think that’s fair to the president. You don’t get the good without … the whole package.”
Another House-Senate GOP split is also likely to emerge if Trump continues steaming toward the nomination. Senate Republicans can win back the majority next year even if he loses the presidential election, given their red-leaning map.
But in the House, Republicans’ future is more deeply intertwined with the vacillations of the mercurial ex-president. And many of Trump’s House GOP critics don’t even want to entertain the idea of trying to govern alongside him; in interviews, some simply shook their heads and furrowed their brows in feigned fatigue.
“Shit, yeah,” Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) replied when asked whether his colleagues are worried about clashing with Trump. “The orange Jesus?” he added with a laugh.
Trump’s allies argued that his second term would be smoother than the first, notwithstanding the reality of his chaotic exit from office and subsequent indictments.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), an influential voice on the House’s right flank, said Trump has “learned that there are people who [he] can trust and can’t trust.”
Miller, a former Trump aide, said that the presidential frontrunner would look more closely to “allies like me who are moderately pragmatic, that are all in on the America First agenda,” than more unpredictable conservatives like the eight (including Biggs) who voted to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. He dismissed those Trump allies as “the freak shows within our party.”
Trump’s team is confident of their broader relationships in the House and predicted GOP senators would fall in line behind pro-Trump colleagues like Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida. Indeed, Johnson has endorsed Trump for president and recently met with him at Mar-a-Lago on the sidelines of a political fundraiser at Trump’s club. The two men, who have a good relationship since Johnson’s days on the Judiciary Committee during Trump’s first impeachment, had a friendly conversation and smiled for a photo together.
Johnson also supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, as did most House Republicans. Most Senate Republicans, on the other hand, did not — which could mean more static toward McConnell and his allies should Trump reclaim the White House.
A Trump adviser laughed off a question about McConnell’s relationship with Trump, arguing “there’s not much that Trump hasn’t said on that himself.”
McConnell’s office declined to comment for this story. He’s made zero effort to rejuvenate his partnership with Trump, which crumbled after Jan. 6.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) argued that McConnell and Trump could still rekindle their partnership, “remembering that there’s pre-election and then there’s post-election. Things change after people become elected.”
Another Republican close to Trump’s campaign specifically mentioned Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), whose reelection Trump threatened to oppose, as a potential target of future ire. (Thune won his race handily in 2022.)
In an interview, Thune acknowledged that Trump was in a strong position but said he likes what he’s hearing from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign. Thune advised fellow Republicans to “be prepared to respond to similar types of ideas and proposals and statements in the future” from Trump as the primary accelerates.
Other Republicans who served during the first Trump presidency are reluctant to make any predictions about the future — beyond expecting the unexpected.
Still, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said plenty in the GOP dread Trump’s return to the political spotlight but “everybody is being more private about it.”
“I wouldn’t expect him to be different,” Simpson said, adding that many colleagues worry about “four years of revenge … we just have to wait and see.”