Trump throws weight around Washington

Story highlights

  • Full-blown PR disaster threatened to derail the first day of the new Congress
  • Trump threw cold water on GOP plan

(CNN)Donald Trump isn't even in Washington yet, but he's already throwing his weight around.

The President-elect prevailed Tuesday in the first exchange of what could turn out to be an awkward, sometimes turbulent relationship with fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill.
A full-blown PR disaster threatened to derail the first day of the new Congress as House Republicans prepared to move forward with a measure that would have gutted an independent ethics office. As the scope of the controversy became clear by mid-morning, Trump threw cold water on the plan, calling the ethics watchdog "unfair," but suggesting there were bigger priorities for lawmakers to tackle.
    "With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it ... may be, their number one act and priority," Trump said in consecutive tweets. "Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!"
    Within hours, House GOP lawmakers met in an emergency session and decided unanimously to remove the ethics provisions from a broader package slated for a vote later in the day. The episode was the first test of Trump's ability to exert influence over his party in Congress. It's unclear whether Trump's tweets were the sole deciding factor in the GOP's flip or whether lawmakers were responding to intense pressure from constituents.
    Either way, it's certain the blowback intensified to a new level once Trump turned to Twitter.
    Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who backed the attempt to gut the ethics panel that many lawmakers believe overreaches, said Trump's comment "animated the press" and created pressure on GOP lawmakers to change course.
    "I'm concerned that now we have Republicans criticizing Republicans," King said. "We need to stay away from that."
    Some lawmakers said they decided independently their move was unwise and didn't need Trump to tell them.

    Perception in Washington

    But in a sense, it does not matter. The perception quickly jelled in Washington that Trump put himself at the center of the storm and changed the weather. Such actions tend to enhance a President's perceived power, especially in the crucial early months of his administration.
    The GOP wrangle was not Trump's only win on Tuesday. Ford announced it would nix a plan to build a factory in Mexico and would spend $700 million to bring 700 jobs to Michigan, crediting Trump's policies for the move.
    Democrats will argue that such interventions pale into comparison to the millions of jobs created by President Barack Obama.
    But Trump faces the likely impossible challenge of returning US manufacturing jobs from low-wage economies abroad. So in the case of Ford, as with the spat on Capitol Hill, the symbolism and media coverage is far more important than context.
    In the meantime, Tuesday's drama offered a preview of how Trump will govern. The Twitter president appears unlikely to be content with working congressional back channels and using conventional levers of power to get his way.
    The day's events also showed that while Trump may be a Washington newbie, he knows how to score an easy political win.
    For much of his transition, Trump has been hounded by ethics questions of his own, centering on potential huge conflicts of interests posed by his global business interests. His wealthy cabinet picks -- such as Rex Tillerson for secretary of state and Steve Mnuchin for Treasury -- are being accused by Democrats of failing to provide sufficient financial data and other information ahead of their confirmation hearings.
    But Trump can now present himself as a champion of ethical standards on Capitol Hill and argue that he has already taken a step to honor his vow of draining Washington's political swamp.
    The exchange also appeared to hint at the Republican hierarchy in Washington after the inauguration and the incoming president's relationship with Speaker Paul Ryan.
    Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, initially opposed the change to ethics rules. But once he was defied by his troops, he fell into line, issuing a statement defending the move -- only for GOP lawmakers to reverse themselves later.

    Sway with the GOP

    The way the confrontation ended left an impression that Trump, basking in the political capital that new presidents enjoy, may have as much sway with the restive Republican caucus as Ryan himself, who was re-elected speaker on Tuesday.
    Of course, life is going to get a lot tougher for the President-elect.
    Despite their common political aims -- repealing Obamacare, passing big tax cuts and beginning a new era of conservative rule -- Trump and the GOP will not always see eye to eye. And Ryan's new GOP conference looks as likely to be as unruly as his last one.
    Washington's set up of competing branches of government will also open rifts, as will GOP divisions on issues like infrastructure spending and saving entitlements where Trump parts company with Republican orthodoxy.
    And a clash is already brewing between the President-elect and Republicans over Trump's determination to improve ties with Russia.
    Sen. John McCain, a Russia hawk who is demanding new sanctions against the Kremlin over the alleged attempt to intervene in November's election, plans to convene a Senate Armed Services hearing on cyber-security this week that could cause tension with the incoming administration.
    But the overwhelming effect of Tuesday's back-and-forth was to underline that a new political era has dawned. In an interview with CNN's Dana Bash, newly-elected Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he was ready to work with Trump -- but wasn't holding his breath.
    "The only way we're going to work with him is if he moves completely in our direction and abandons his Republican colleagues," Schumer said. "That's not going to happen very often."
    The sense of shifting eras was also evident in the absence of the dominant figure who has commanded the spotlight in Washington for so long — Obama.
    The President stayed out of sight Tuesday, a day after returning for his Hawaiian vacation. The White House has repeatedly stressed that the US only has one president at a time -- a line White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeated Tuesday after Trump warned the current administration to drop plans to transfer more prisoners from Guantanamo Bay before Obama leaves office.
    Asked whether Trump's move will change the President's mind, Earnest replied "No, it will not," before adding: "He'll have an opportunity to implement the policy that he believes will be more effective when he takes office on January 20."