It could have been a week-long victory lap.
Instead, President Donald Trump strolled into the Senate Republican’s lunch last Tuesday reinvigorated by the end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and with a surprise announcement to make: He wanted to put health care at the top of the GOP agenda.
It was a declaration that elicited more than a few snide grumbles from lawmakers and aides. Health care? They wondered. Really?
The last time they tried that it, ended in disaster. Not only did the months-long fight to repeal Obamacare in 2017 expose deep schisms inside the GOP, it died a very public death on the Senate floor that summer with John McCain’s now infamous thumbs-down vote.
Revisiting any of that was hardly top-of-mind for most Republicans two days after the Russia investigation ended. Yet, this is the world they have become accustomed to.
On the roller coaster that is the Trump presidency, Republicans rarely have much of a choice beyond going along for the ride. But as confounding as that is, there is another component to Trump that GOP lawmakers have found eases their anxiety. Though his outbursts and impulsiveness are legendary, his accessibility is unprecedented.
In interviews with more than a dozen Republican lawmakers and aides, most agreed Trump’s erratic behavior can at times be maddening. A decision not to sign a spending bill erupted into a historic shutdown to start the year. A decision to withdraw US troops in Syria wasn’t communicated to top leaders on Capitol Hill.
The pivot to health care was proving to be a similar moment.
“There is a lot of angst about this whole health care bulls*** we are dealing with,” said one Republican congressman who asked to remain anonymous to freely discuss their gripes with the President without fear of Twitter retribution. “But you aren’t going to hear members say ‘WTF Mr. President, what the hell did you do that for?’”
But as much as Trump can keep them guessing, he’s as accessible as any President they can remember.
Ask members if Trump is likeable, hard to stay mad at, and most respond without hesitation, absolutely, yes.
It doesn’t hurt that Trump wants to talk to Republican rank-and-file, and he talks to them all of the time.
It was the morning after the Republican lunch. Republican Sen. John Barrasso looked down at his cell phone. It was ringing “202 unknown,” a familiar image among a handful of Republican lawmakers. The White House was calling. More than that, it was the President on the other end. Trump wanted to talk to Barasso about health care.
“He calls members frequently and he is completely available to us when we call him,” Barrasso said. “I am very fortunate to have that relationship with the President.”
Few members couldn’t recall a time Trump had surprised them or called directly. Most of the time it’s welcome; sometimes less so. “He’ll call you,” joked Rep. Tom Reed, a moderate from New York, who has tangled with his party at times as they’ve negotiated health care and tax plans. “You know sometimes I see it pop up on the phone and I’m like ‘Oh I know where this call is coming from’ and sometimes I’m like ‘Ooo I don’t know if I want to take that.’”
Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he recently called the White House to talk to an adviser who wasn’t in. Rather than asking if he wanted to leave a message, the operator put Risch on hold, apologized that the aide wasn’t available and then asked if he’d rather talk to Trump instead.
He did. A few moments later, the President on the line.
“It’s just really, really good access and that makes such a difference when you’ve got to make decisions or trying to weigh things,” Risch said.
Trump’s willingness to take calls and engage is so well known on Capitol Hill that one former leadership aide told CNN that when rank-and-file members go to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to complain about something Trump’s engaged in, McConnell tells them to pick up the phone and just call the President themselves
“President Trump is the most accessible President that I have ever seen,” said Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who himself recalled an incident a few months ago when he wanted to talk to Trump on a Sunday. Within 30 minutes, his phone was ringing.
“The first thing he said before I said anything was ‘let’s talk about you serving another 20 years,’” recalled Alexander. “I said Mr. President, I am sorry, I called to tell you I’m not going to run for re-election.”
To Alexander, it’s not just his access. For a president as polarizing as Trump, Alexander is struck with how good he is in person. “Even people who don’t like him, when they are with him, are impressed with how easily he works a room. I think he likes people. He lives in the moment. He’s not thinking of the next day or even the next hour or the next person … he’s that kind of personality.”
Not a creature of Washington
Trump landed in Washington without the kinds of bonds or relationships that most presidents come into the Oval office equipped with. He was starting from scratch with dozens of members who had openly turned away from him during his campaign’s most searing moment: when an Access Hollywood tape surfaced with the President being heard saying that he could grab women whenever he’d liked.
But what Trump lacked in relationships, Trump exceled in when it came to the glad-handing politicking that makes Washington go round.
His raw and sometimes intense hunger to interact with members has forged a bond with many politicians who might otherwise shunned Trump. At the end of the day, members say Trump is hard not to connect with. He makes them feel heard. He also entertains them.
Republican lawmakers describe a President that behind the scenes is like a Maitre D’ at your favorite restaurant, a willing tour guide and listener, but also a force of personality who commands meetings and has the propensity to talk endlessly about everything and nothing.
One Republican member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss his interactions with the President described a movie night at the White House early on in which the President – after the film had ended well after 9 p.m. – surveyed the room to see who might like to see the residence.
The member recounted that Trump cracked a joke along the lines of “Melania always loves it when I bring 40 of my closest friends up at 9:30 at night to see the residence.”
“He’s showing us everything,” the member said. “There will be a lot of books written about this Presidency, and I hope that there are a few written about what actually got done because his personality is so large.”
Rep. Steve Scalise, the minority whip, told CNN that during the height of the health care negotiations, he went to the White House for a serious meeting with the President and a few other members about how to pass the bill. In the course of the conversation, Trump asked him how his family was and when Scalise shared it was his daughter Madison’s 10th birthday, the President stopped the meeting and recorded a birthday message for her.
“Madison, happy birthday,” Trump said in a selfie video alongside Scalise. “Just listen to this man; he’s a powerful, powerful man. We love him,” Trump said pointing to Scalise.
The access to Trump – especially for senators – is nothing short of remarkable. Layers upon layers of aides that surrounded both President George W. Bush and Barack Obama aren’t as obviously on display.
“With President George W. Bush, I appreciate his accomplishments, but sometimes I had no idea who my administration liason person was in either that administration or the Obama administration. There is far more contact now,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican.
One White House aide noted, however, that the President rarely is the one to make the call to ask a member to vote one way or another. Those interactions the aide said, were dispatched to the White House legislative affairs team.
Members recount how in meetings, aides that typically would keep things running on schedule rarely step in to stop the President.
“You know the difference between this President and any other President I have worked with … is that he never seems to be in a hurry,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri and a member of leadership.
“He is prepared to hear everybody out. He is certainly prepared to talk in a meeting as much as he wants to, but he is also prepared to just stay until everybody feels like they’ve been heard,” said Blunt. “No one on his staff ever tells him it’s time for the meeting to be over.”
Trump’s willingness to engage is a welcome change from the eight years Republicans dealt with Obama. The former President had a reputation even among Democrats of being hard to get in touch with.
“My guess is that Democrats have to be somewhat jealous when they see the interactions with this administration and members of Congress,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said.
Not just the brain trust
The President certainly has a concentrated brain trust of lawmakers he most often turns to. There’s Rep. Mark Meadows, a leader of the House Freedom Caucus who often sparred with then House Speaker Paul Ryan, and has the ear of the President.
There’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, his one-time 2016 primary opponent, immigration pragmatist and defense hawk who has befriended Trump despite the President’s constant attacks of his late friend Sen. John McCain. There’s Sen. Rand Paul, a thorn in the side of McConnell who’s views of limited government are so conservative that it’s often landed Paul on the other side of the President on core issues central to his campaign.
But, even members outside of that small circle are often invited to share their ideas.
At his core, many Republicans say it is a misconception that Trump cuts ties with those who disagrees with him. The key, many argue, is to have those talks privately with him, not in public where the image-sensitive President feels vulnerable.
“People have the perception that you have to agree with him. Nothing could be further from the truth. We disagree like anybody does. We have a good, robust discussion on it. When I’ve disagreed with him, and when I have agreed with him, he’s never treated me with anything, but total respect. Now, I don’t go out and talk to you about it,” Risch said.
Back when Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, was on the fence about challenging then-Democratic North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in the midterms, Cramer was invited to the Oval Office with his family. It was January 2, 2018. Trump made his best sell to try and convince Cramer’s wife Kris, and charmed his family. But, it’s what happened next that stuck with him. After he’d walked out of the Oval, he could hear Trump calling his name.
Cramer walked back in.
Trump was there wanting to talk with Cramer about the fact that Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch had just announced he wasn’t going to run for re-election. He’d just found out and wanted a sounding board.
“It was just him and me … he wanted me to come back in and talk about it. I thought it was great. I felt honored to be there. We extended our meeting probably by 10 minutes just him and me” Cramer said.
A year later, the North Dakota State University football team was at the White House for a five minute photo op that turned into being an hour and a half visit that culminated in Trump inviting more than 100 people into the Oval office, Cramer recalled.
“It throws his security detail off … but you can imagine him being the Matri D’ at Trump Tower,” Cramer said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.