WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s unpredictable behavior since the November election has Republicans, including those close to the White House, alarmed and concerned that he has opened a fissure in the GOP that cannot easily be mended.
Republicans who consider themselves allies of the president said Trump’s public criticism of Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday and remarks at a rally that led to a riot on Capitol Hill were “disgraceful” and corrosive to a political party that is under strain from the loss of the White House and the Senate majority after the Georgia runoff election.
“The president owns this. It was a mistake. It’s not good for the party,” one Trump campaign adviser said.
For activists and strategists in the Republican Party who had already broken with Trump, the events of the past week, beginning with his recorded call to Georgia’s secretary of state asking him to find enough votes to overturn the election, were seen as likely to result in a repudiation and isolation of Trump by other Republicans.
“A line has really been drawn. You are now seeing the beginnings of the fight for the soul of the Republican Party,” said GOP strategist and Republican Voters Against Trump founder Sarah Longwell.
Breaking open the dam, Republicans who were aligned with Trump until this week told McClatchy, was his eruption at Pence over the conservative vice president’s refusal to hinder congressional certification of the 2020 Electoral College results for President-elect Joe Biden.
Trump said in a tweet that Pence “didn’t have the courage” to protect the country or the Constitution after the vice president told lawmakers in a letter that he did not have “unilateral authority” to pick and choose which electoral votes should be certified, as Trump had repeatedly pressed him to do.
“Even guys who are not necessarily big Pence supporters, but who in fact think that Pence did the right thing are just alarmed that the president is kicking him to the curb,” a Trump campaign adviser said. “And pouring souring milk on his head was a bridge too far.”
Trump’s rhetoric was roundly criticized by current, former and recently departed aides. At least three White House aides resigned on Wednesday evening following widespread condemnation of the president after the riot.
His former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who had been serving as Trump’s envoy to Northern Ireland, also stepped down, saying that Trump’s directive to march on the Capitol in a rally speech was too much for him. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told colleagues in a Thursday email that the nation experienced a “traumatic and entirely avoidable event” at the Capitol that she found troubling enough to submit her resignation. Chao is married to Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
“This is going to shake up the Republican Party,” a former White House aide said of Trump’s recent actions. “It’s not a rift. It’s a giant gaping hole.”
Trump’s insistence that the election was fraudulent and Pence should reject electors from states that their campaign contested in court had Republican leaders such as McConnell, who delivered a stinging rebuke to the president on on the Senate floor, distancing themselves from Trump and encouraging the party to regroup and move on.
“What the president did was completely out of line attacking the vice president, who has been an incredible supporter, an incredible ally through thick and thin. If anything, Mike Pence deserves accolades, not thorns and disparagements, thrown his way,” a source close to the White House said.
Former Republican Rep. Mark Sanford, a former South Carolina governor who briefly challenged Trump for the GOP nomination in the last election, said that the Trump years were a “personal loyalty test” for conservatives that “in Pence’s case hasn’t worked so well.”
Even though Pence fully backed Trump for four years, Sanford said, when he would not use his position as president of the Senate to nullify the Electoral College count, “the guy turns on him.”
“It’s a Faustian deal. The guy was brought on in large part I think to assuage the religious right,” he said of the former Indiana governor and congressman.
Trump’s public, verbal assault on Pence emerged as a flash point for Republicans on Wednesday who said that Trump was taking his election grievances too far.
“It’s going to take time to really heal the movement, because Pence is part of our movement,” one former Trump adviser said of the conservatives who stuck with Trump because Pence was on the ticket. “So what you’re seeing is definitely a rift, I would say, amongst the loyalist Trump supporter and conservatives who have supported Pence.”
The president sent several tweets telling his supporters to respect law enforcement and refrain from violence after the mob descended on the Capitol, but Republicans said the lackluster effort from Trump to de-escalate the situation as he made more false assertions of voter fraud was not enough and came too late.
Sanford said Trump’s actions this week should create a chasm in the GOP between those who support his unproven allegations of election fraud and those who do not, calling it “the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”