On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump sent out a pointed missive ahead of the Senate’s vote to block his emergency declaration: “A vote for today’s resolution by Republican Senators is a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Crime, and the Open Border Democrats!“
Soon after, White House aides began blasting the tweet to GOP senators by text message to remind them of how the president viewed the impending vote, according to senators and aides who received the messages.
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The last-minute lobbying did little to quell a Republican rebellion that eventually arrived in eye-popping numbers: a full dozen GOP senators joining Democrats in voting to overturn Trump’s unilateral move to fund his border wall.
It didn’t have to be that way, Republicans say, especially if Trump had engaged more consistently with senators and made a relatively modest agreement to change the National Emergencies Act to rein in presidential power.
It also was a reminder that White House aides have long acknowledged the futility of speaking for or negotiating on the president’s behalf, a position they now are openly conveying to lawmakers: passing along his tweets rather than attempting to twist arms or hash out a compromise themselves.
“He quite possibly could have gotten 50 senators voting no,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who led the failed effort to get Trump to agree to changes to the 1976 National Emergencies Act in exchange for his support.
The Republican revolt on the Senate floor followed a haphazard and erratic persuasion effort from Trump that offers a vivid encapsulation of how this White House has struggled to influence Congress.
In the days before the vote, the president initially made few moves to try to stem GOP defections.
Trump told senators that he knew they wouldn’t be able to override his veto and appeared to see little upside to cutting a deal on his signature issue. He made little effort to whip wavering GOP senators during a Wednesday afternoon meeting on trade, and said they could vote however they pleased.
By Wednesday evening, however, he had grown disturbed by the brewing condemnation from his own party.
That night, GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska arrived at the White House virtually unannounced but eager to discuss the impending vote and find a way for them to vote against the resolution. The senators, who gave little notice of their intention to drop in on the president, found him having dinner in the White House dining room.
“They called to say they were on their way and insisting to see the president,” said a senior White House aide. A second West Wing official complained about “trespassers” in the White House.
Deputy White House counsel Pat Philbin and legislative affairs chief Shahira Knight were summoned to meet with the president and the senatorial trio, but the discussion did not yield a solution to the broader standoff between the GOP and Trump. In fact, Knight told colleagues that the impromptu meeting “probably did more harm than good” because the dinner-crashing senators irritated the president and weren’t completely unified in the views they presented.
The GOP senators later told their colleagues that Trump had grown even more angry about the upcoming vote since the afternoon when his relaxed demeanor surprised senators who had met with him. All three voted with Trump, but nearly a quarter of their colleagues disagreed with them.
By Thursday morning, Trump had unleashed three tweets urging his party not to vote with Pelosi and making a lukewarm commitment to consider amending the National Emergencies Act.
Republicans who disliked the emergency declaration were framing the disagreement as an epic battle to defend the Constitution and the separation of powers. Trump put things more simply: “Today’s issue is BORDER SECURITY and Crime!!! Don’t vote with Pelosi!”
“A lot of the nuance is going to be lost in all of this. It’s going to be viewed in those sort of stark terms,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who initially expressed concern with the national emergency but ultimately stood with the president. “So that’s something people will have to deal with here depending on their own political calculations.”
“The president sees this vote as a vote on border security. And I can understand his perspective,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “But in my opinion, the Republican votes that opposes him are not based on border security. They’re based on separation of powers.”
While Trump tried to persuade senators to stick with him in tweets and in remarks to the news media, he never targeted any lawmaker by name and didn’t appear to be working the phones with particular vigor to change any minds.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who eventually sided with the president, said reporters were more interested in learning his position than the White House.
“Y’all were better than they were,” he told reporters on Thursday.
The sensitivity of the issue was apparent in the sheer amount of energy the GOP spent on it. For three weeks, the topic dominated each thrice-weekly party lunch as senators argued in circles about what to do, according to GOP senators.
And for some the vote was excruciating.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) trashed the emergency declaration in a Washington Post op-ed last month but began searching for a deal with the White House to reform the national emergency law over the past week.
Ultimately, he voted against the resolution, as did Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who refused to talk about the vote in the days leading up to it. Gardner patted Tillis on the back after his colleague announced his position on the floor; both men are considered vulnerable in their reelection bids next year.
For recently elected senators or those with few fears of immediate political consequences, the vote was much easier.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) never wavered in their support for the resolution. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told Trump last week that he would vote for it, but kept his decision private for a week to avoid having to back down if the circumstances of the vote changed.
There was some talk among Republicans even this week that Trump might just hold the line.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a frequent swing vote, seemed interested in the broader discussions over the national emergency law despite her previously stated intentions to vote for the disapproval resolution. If they somehow could have gotten Murkowski to flip, limiting the vote to three GOP defections would have allowed Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie and prevent Trump from having to use his veto pen for the first time in his presidency.
Pence met privately with Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Tillis and Lee on Tuesday and seemed initially cool to changing the law to limit presidential power. But he grew interested when he was informed that perhaps a deal could prevent the resolution from passing, senators said.
Just 24 hours later, Trump himself removed that possibility by calling Lee and telling him there would be no deal — a surprise to a Senate GOP Conference and some White House officials who thought there was still a way out of the confrontation with the president.
“What I was hoping to do was to persuade the president to adopt a different course … [and] to see if a specific pledge to support Sen. Lee’s bill might be enough to change my vote,” Alexander said. “But neither of those things worked out.”
And as much as the rebuke was a defeat for the president, the eleventh-hour attempts by several Republican senators to strike a deal underscored how many of them view breaking with Trump as politically risky.
Toomey, Lee and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were among the conservative senators trying to gauge whether a deal with the White House was possible, only to see Trump disinterested in avoiding a clash. They all voted against Trump despite their collective desire for more barriers on the border.
“It’s ironic,” Toomey said of his opposition to Trump’s use of the emergency power, “Because I fully support more border construction.”
John Bresnahan and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.