About Congressional Journalism: “What we ask when we ask about Trump”

From a story on politico.com by Elana Schor headlined “What we ask when we ask about Trump”:

A subgenre of congressional journalism flourished during President Donald Trump’s four years in office, one that I’ll call “the Republican react piece.” The formula was simple: Reporters would confront GOP lawmakers with the most ill-advised or objectionable statements from their party’s president, which forced them to align with the statement or disavow themselves from their party’s leader.

A few greatest hits from this subgenre: Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) agreeing that Trump’s 2019 tweets about House Democratic women of color were racist; Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) offering that “I can’t control that … I don’t think it’s helpful” after Trump blasted the special counsel investigating Russia’s ties to his 2016 campaign; and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) replying, “Oh no, ugh,” when asked about Trump’s tweets attacking a 75-year-old demonstrator who was shoved by police.

Trump lost the White House and has been deprived of his favorite social media platform. But he remains the de facto head of the Republican Party and the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. And he hasn’t stopped airing sentiments that smack of distaste for the democratic process that denied him a second term, like his suggestion during a Texas campaign rally this weekend that he would offer pardons to those prosecuted for besieging the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

So it’s time to get back to regularly asking Republicans in Congress what they think of the president’s statements. It’s time to bring back the Republican react piece in all of its glory.

These stories aren’t mere diversions; they’re important. They’re not conceived to focus conservative ire on centrists like Collins and Murkowski who more readily criticize Trump, nor are they gotcha devices geared to yoke most Republicans to a former president whose approval ratings were nosediving by the time he left office.

Asking what GOP officeholders think of Trump’s individual statements helps suss out, on an almost granular level, how deep his hold on the party remains. And it’s also likely to further illuminate a significant divide among Republicans in Congress: the House-Senate split.

Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell’s conferences have shown signs of divergence from each other all year long, from the infrastructure bill to a debt-limit deal. The House minority leader has kept Trump close, while the Senate minority leader (and his members) has shrugged off the former president’s active campaign to dislodge him.

The more Republican react pieces we see as Trump resumes his public rallies, and the more the members of the House and Senate GOP are asked to contextualize Trump’s enduring fury toward the Jan. 6 select committee and other politically resonant topics he takes up, the more we’re likely to see a split between the two chambers’ leading Republicans.

As both McCarthy and McConnell push to take back control of their respective chambers this fall, their treatment of each other and of Trump becomes ever more important.

Their differences matter for more than just legislation — efforts at accountability for the insurrection that led to Trump’s second impeachment also may hang in the balance. McCarthy has rejected the Jan. 6 panel’s request for an interview about his conversations with Trump, decrying its “abuse of power,” while McConnell has dryly observed that “it will be interesting to reveal all the participants who were involved” in the insurrection as the committee continues its work.

We may already be headed toward a resurgence of the Republican react story. Sen. Susan Collins was pressed Sunday during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” about Trump’s dangling of pardons for the Capitol rioters. In response, the centrist Mainer said she was “very unlikely” to support Trump in 2024, though she also didn’t totally rule it out.

The Collins interview occurred before Trump released a statement claiming that former Vice President Mike Pence “did have the right to change the outcome” of the 2020 election. It’s reasonable to expect that she and her colleagues will be asked about that assertion this week.

Their responses will be deeply newsworthy as she and more than a dozen other senators hash out a deal to update the Electoral Count Act, the 135-year-old law that governs the congressional certification of Electoral College votes for president. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), asked tonight about Trump’s latest statements on overturning the election, “chided reporters for focusing on ‘low priority’ news,” according to HuffPost’s Igor Bobic.

Keep asking them anyway, reporters.

Elana Schor is Congress editor at POLITICO. She first joined POLITICO as an energy reporter before covering Congress during the first two years of the Trump administration, later covering the 2020 Democratic presidential primary as well as religion and politics for The Associated Press. Schor has previously covered politics for Environment & Energy Daily. She has covered the Hill for nearly 15 years, writing on congressional politics for The Guardian, Talking Points Memo, and The Hill, and serving as the first editor of the infrastructure news site Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

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