WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — President Trump arrived Thursday at an annual policy retreat for congressional Republicans as a more familiar figure to lawmakers who have mostly, if not entirely, come to grips with his freewheeling style.
They have begun to adapt to his unpredictable nature and, when it comes to investigations of Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidential actions, Republicans have increasingly become strong defenders in a bid to invalidate his Democratic critics and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Even those Republicans who hesitate to embrace Trump have come to grips with the fact that voters chose this mode of operation — and no longer expect him to change course.
“They picked the person that had the least government experience, and was a business guy, and who bragged about saying, ‘I’m completely out of the mainstream,’ and they said, ‘That’s who I want,’ and they got that the first year,” Sen. James Lankford (Okla.), who supported other Republicans in the 2016 primaries, said on the eve of the GOP retreat at the Greenbrier resort here.
Trump returned the favor very early in his remarks. He turned toward House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and praised their work, burying the hatchet — for now at least — after having spent the first nine months of 2017 alternately ridiculing the two leaders publicly.
“They’ve become very good friends, and we’re now in battle together and in friendship together,” Trump said of the entire GOP congressional leadership team.
Those positive vibes cannot mask a much deeper problem for congressional Republicans. Their congressional majorities are in peril heading into the November midterm elections. The political damage from those first nine months — not repealing the Affordable Care Act, a sprawling criminal investigation that has produced several indictments and plea agreements, a pugnacious style that prompted Trump to defend white supremacists and a Senate candidate accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers — may have sown the seeds of a massive defeat.
“Most members are very sober and realistic about what kind of environment we’re moving into in 2018,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.), suggesting that they are running into the wind. “This upcoming midterm is going to be a referendum on the president of the United States and his conduct in office, more than anything else.”
Republicans hoped this retreat, tucked away on the far side of the Shenandoah Valley about 250 miles from Washington, would chart a course that would minimize the damage of last year’s self-inflicted wounds.
And that deeper unity with Trump and Vice President Pence is a big first step.
It’s a stark contrast from where things stood a year ago, when, shortly after taking his oath of office, Trump journeyed to Philadelphia for the retreat. At the time, the new president was an unfamiliar figure to most Republicans, who gave modest support to a campaign they assumed was doomed until Trump pulled off a dramatic upset.
In Philadelphia, Trump felt compelled to legitimize his victory, so he spent a good portion of the talk recounting how he was the first GOP presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania in almost 30 years. He did little to lay the groundwork for what turned into an up-and-down year.
When he finished, Trump did not stick around for the question-and-answer session that has long been a tradition for Republican and Democratic presidents at policy retreats.
Flash forward to this week, when the distance between the two wings of the Republican Party had almost vanished. As Trump wound down a roughly 80-minute State of the Union address in the House chamber, Republicans burst into chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” in support of the president.
That boisterous reaction is the result of a successful final few months of 2017, culminating in the passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut on a party-line vote.
“The biggest thing is, if you can build on accomplishments — more so than hope — for a legislative win, it changes the way it is,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Meadows’s faction thwarted Trump in early 2017, taking down the first bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act, only to later become one of his staunchest supporters by the end of the year.
It’s a far from perfect bond. Neither Pence, who spoke here Wednesday night, nor Trump took questions from their supposed allies. Some Republicans say those successes came only when Trump deferred to GOP lawmakers on the tax legislation — as opposed to during the failed ACA repeal, when he thought he could threaten them into supporting his position.
“I think he’s still getting a sense of how Congress works and how politics works. I think that he came in believing that he could force or bully with much greater effect than he, I think, proved able to do,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (S.C.), a staunch conservative who has regularly criticized Trump’s demeanor.
Sanford noted that more than 30 House Republicans have now decided to retire, run for another office or outright resign amid controversy — hardly a resounding vote of confidence in the Trump administration.
“I think that people are trying to get their arms around what he means to them,” Sanford said. “In some cases, he means, ‘I’m out of here.’ ”
Meadows thinks that the political risk is overstated and that sticking to the most conservative principles will be the path to victory in the midterms.
How much concern is there about a November bloodbath?
“For some, a great deal,” Meadows said. “For me, zero. I mean, if you do the right thing for the right people, you actually come back, and if you don’t, you ought to go home.”
Dent, a leader of the moderate Tuesday Group, finds this talk to be the equivalent of whistling past the political graveyard. He is one of the lawmakers who decided to retire, leaving behind a district that is a mix of Philadelphia suburbs where Trump is toxic and rural areas where he remains popular.
“I think we know we’re going to be in for a pretty nasty and tough year,” Dent said. “I think people know that.”