By sinking United States President Donald Trump’s two latest Federal Reserve picks, Senate Republicans showed there are limits to their tolerance for the president’s unorthodox approach to filling top posts ahead of a critical stretch for the administration.
While Republican senators aren’t in open rebellion against the leader of their party, they are urging him to modify his approach on nominations to avoid more messy embarrassments. They’re also engaging in a fresh challenge to his trade tariffs, imposed on allies and adversaries alike.
In addition to the two still-open Fed seats, Trump has yet to announce nominees for other major open positions, including secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security.
The White House has been sternly reminded that the president can’t count on Republicans to automatically usher his choices through Senate confirmation.
"I think it’s pretty obvious that a little collaboration up front goes a long way," said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.
Trump dropped his choice of Stephen Moore for the Fed on Thursday as it became apparent the Heritage Foundation fellow and 2016 Trump campaign adviser lacked the votes to get confirmed.
Less than two weeks earlier, the president shelved his plan to put former pizza company executive Herman Cain on the Fed amid cratering support.
Moore Bails as Trump’s Fed Pick Hours After "I’m All In" Pledge
Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a member of the GOP leadership, has been a rare senator up for re-election next year taking a lead role in pushing back against the president.
She has urged him to swiftly end trade conflicts that have roiled the American farm country, and she publicly opposed the choice of Moore for the Fed following reports of his derogatory comments about women in past writings.
Many other Republicans are also sending Trump the message that more vetting and consultation on nominations -- and fewer tariffs -- are better.
"I’m sure that the White House had heard from a lot of us," said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who earlier spoke of a "drip by drip" of negative revelations about Moore.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, who said she privately conveyed her concerns about Moore to the White House, added that the lesson for the administration is "vetting" -- and said there are plenty of qualified people out there for the job.
It’s not clear that Trump has gotten the message.
He hasn’t budged on tariffs even after Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa warned that the president’s free-trade agreement with Mexico and Canada won’t get through Congress unless he drops levies on those countries.
Grip on GOP
To be sure, the rebukes from Republican senators have been mild, and the president’s grip on his party remains robust.
GOP members have been unified in crediting Trump for the humming economy and are mostly in sync in praising Attorney General William Barr and his handling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Republicans tend to avoid taking on Trump directly, wary of the kind of retaliation that torpedoed former Senator Jeff Flake’s standing in the Arizona Republican Party before he retired.
No one wants a Trump-backed primary challenger. The most vulnerable Republican senators in 2020 -- such as Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina -- kept their distance from the Moore controversy before Trump announced that he was pulling out.
"There’s no mileage in Republican senators picking public fights with President Trump, but they will continue to exert their own will privately and behind the scenes, just as they have done with the Federal Reserve nominees," said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant who has worked with a number of Republican senators.
Still, a stream of recent curve balls from the president has Senate Republicans wincing, occasionally in public.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointedly chided Trump in April over a threat to close the southern US border, and for calling on GOP lawmakers to again try to overhaul Obamacare.
Trump backed off.
GOP senators, in trying to nudge the unpredictable chief executive, are publicly mentioning their one-on-one phone calls to jawbone him on his more controversial decisions.
Top Republican senators have repeatedly urged the White House to vet candidates internally and with senators before floating them publicly.
Moore’s columns, which he characterized as "spoofs" and assorted baggage had GOP senators scurrying from reporters to avoid having to defend or criticize the potential nominee.
Most ducked having to comment on Moore and Cain by noting they hadn’t been formally nominated.
Of the two Federal Reserve candidates, Cain got a more open drubbing, as old allegations of sexual harassment and infidelity resurfaced.
He again denied the accusations, but four GOP senators said they would vote against him if he were nominated: Gardner, Murkowski, Mitt Romney of Utah and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.
With Democrats warning Cain would get no backing from their side, the GOP defections were enough to doom his chances in a Senate controlled 53-47 by Republicans.
Moore’s preemptive defeat came after just one GOP senator -- Ernst -- came out against him publicly. Yet many others withheld their support and some directly warned the White House of their views.
Others sent strong signals. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, repeatedly told reporters Tuesday that Moore was losing momentum and faced long odds in being confirmed.
Tensions on nominations and trade have been part of the relationship between Trump and Senate Republicans from the beginning.
Earlier picks by Trump imploded, including Andrew Puzder to head the Labor Department, Scott Garrett for the Export-Import Bank and even some judicial nominations.
And most Republican senators have been uncomfortable with the series of tariffs Trump has imposed on trading partners, though they’ve held off on direct action in hopes the president will be able to wrap up deals -- and end the trade wars.