Is Donald Trump a rogue Republican - an independent president rather than a party leader? Or is he simply remaking, in fits and starts and with the establishment kicking and screaming, the GOP in his own image? This is a central political question of Trump's presidency, one coming into focus as the Republican-led Congress lurches into its last attempt at getting some legislative points on the board before an election year begins in January.
At the New York Times, Peter Baker writes that "President Trump demonstrated this past week that he still imagines himself a solitary cowboy as he abandoned Republican congressional leaders to forge a short-term fiscal deal" with the Democratic leaders in Congress, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
"Although elected as a Republican last year," Baker writes, "Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the current two-party system around the time of the Civil War."
There's been plenty of evidence piling up since this summer that Trump is putting distance between himself and the Republicans in Congress, chiefly in the way he has interacted publicly with leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. He's blamed them for legislative failures like Obamacare repeal, grumbled at having to sign into law tougher sanctions on Russia backed by the GOP (as well nearly every single Democrat in Congress, too) and loudly urged the Senate to dump the filibuster.
What's frustrating Republicans on Capitol Hill is that Trump's words and actions are making the already daunting 2018 midterm elections even more difficult. His encouragement of a primary challenger to Arizona's Republican senator Jeff Flake is part of it. His praise for North Dakota's Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp ("Good woman") at a speech last week just outside of Bismarck is another. And while efforts like Steve Bannon's to primary other establishment-tinged GOP senators are independent of President Trump himself, Bannon clearly believes he is acting in Trump's interest. The former White House strategist says he told Trump he would be focusing on "going after the establishment" after leaving the administration. "Good, I need that," Trump responded, as Bannon relayed to my colleague Peter Boyer.
From one perspective, the anti-incumbent-Republican campaign, which Politico reports is getting financial support from conservative GOP donor Robert Mercer, does represent a push to simply make the party more reflective of its blond, wavy-haired head. But what worries Republicans in Washington more is not that its majorities will look more Trumpy but that they won't be majorities after 2018. Money spent defending incumbents in primaries can't be used in the general election. Some primaries, in swing districts or emerging swing states like Arizona, could give Democrats an advantage. And the Trumpier the party looks, the more retirements, such as Pennsylvania moderate House member Charlie Dent, we're likely to see.
The appeal to President Trump Republicans in Washington hope to make is that losing the midterms due to a combination of GOP civil war and an unproductive Congress will be catastrophic to Trump himself. Democrats are chomping at the bit to impeach Trump and will do so as soon as they gain the power. Can Trump resist the urge to cause problems for his own team, if only to protect his own position?