President Donald Trump has long alternated between being nice to red-state Senate Democrats and punching them in the nose – and as the midterms approach, his muddled strategy is manifesting itself in tensions between key White House offices.
On the one side is the legislative office, which has in the past two weeks welcomed Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana – two of the Republican Party’s top targets in the fall – to stand alongside the president at bill-signing ceremonies. On the other is the office of political affairs, which has opposed any move that might help Democrats from states Trump won in 2016.
With a signing event for veterans’ health care legislation planned for next week, people in the White House are waiting to see whether an invitation will be extended to Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, who made himself an enemy to Trump by tanking the nomination of White House physician Ronny Jackson for secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Trump himself has veered from welcoming Democrats – most notably when he had Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his House counterpart Nancy Pelosi to the White House last year amid debt negotiations – to threatening them. He derided Donnelly as “a really incredible swamp person” during a rally earlier this month in Elkhart, Indiana, for voting with other Democrats against his top legislative priorities, the tax overhaul and opposing Obamacare repeal.
But he’s repeatedly praised Heitkamp, who has crossed the aisle to support Trump’s legislative priorities including the recently passed rollback of banking restrictions. Some Republican groups have shown their support: on Friday, the conservative Koch brothers political network announced it would launch a digital ad campaign in support of Heitkamp’s re-election bid – a move some interpreted as a show of support for legislative affairs head Marc Short, who previously worked for the Koch-funded Freedom Partners group.
“On the one hand, it shows bipartisanship and Trump’s ability work across the aisle in a constructive way,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “At the same time, the Senate Democratic leadership would like nothing more than these senators to be reelected this year in order to help them with their efforts to implement a left-wing agenda and to undermine the administration’s long-term goals going into the 2020 cycle.”
Moments after Donnelly’s Wednesday visit at the White House, his Senate office pumped out a news release with a video of the event and laudatory quotes from the senator and Trump.
“Senator Donnelly, thank you very much,” Trump said at the event for the bill, which Donnelly introduced with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), in January 2017. “Appreciate it. Thank you.”
“I was proud to join President Trump at the White House, as he signed my right-to-try bill into law,” Donnelly added.
It was a far cry from the scene in Elkhart, where Trump pilloried Donnelly as “Sleepin’ Joe” while bestowing his most highly prized moniker on Donnelly’s Republican challenger Mike Braun: “winner.”
Donnelly’s visit to the White House, where the top GOP target mugged for cameras at a bill signing for his “right-to-try” legislation to help terminally ill patients seek drug treatments, came just a week after Heitkamp’s visit for the banking deregulation bill.
As the White House planned to host Heitkamp, her attendance was challenged by Trump’s political advisers. The legislative affairs office stepped in, assuring colleagues she wouldn’t have a major role in the event, according to people familiar with the planning. Instead, Heitkamp ended up standing next to Trump, the only Democrat in the room.
“We knew she would edge her way into the picture,” said one senior administration official. “But why give her that picture?”
Some aides have questioned what the White House is getting from playing nice with Heitkamp or other Democrats, given that there’s no major legislative agenda item anticipated between now and the midterms.
But others in the White House argue there’s nothing controversial about inviting Democrats to bill signings. It’s traditional to have Democrats present for the signing of bills that passed with bipartisan support, said one senior aide, who added that it seems far-fetched that an appearance at a bill signing would have any impact at all on an election months down the line.
“This is much ado about nothing,” the aide said.
Another White House official acknowledged the tension between the legislative and political offices, but downplayed the political risk to Trump or the party.
“At the end of the day, voters are going to judge the quality of the job they do in districts or states that strongly supported the president by their stances on big issues,” the official said, listing the tax bill, health care votes and stances on key nominees. “These Democratic senators have not been supportive of the president’s agenda, by and large.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: “This White House is united in scoring victories for the American people and wish the Democrats would stop obstructing President’s Trump’s agenda and start doing more to help their constituents.”
The politics of bill signings have long been strained.
Former President Barack Obama, in the run-up to his 2012 reelection, faced persistent grousing from Congressional Republicans that his administration was purposefully stripping the pageantry from bill signings – when he held them – while he accused them of obstructionism.
Months earlier, Obama appeared considerably more open to holding public signings, even inviting then-Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to watch him sign legislation giving tax credits to help put veterans back to work.
Joel Johnson, who served in the Clinton administration, said that if a Republican was relevant to the legislation, or its passage, they were typically invited and made part of the process.
“We generally took the position when the president signed a bill it was a good thing for America and a good thing for the president,” Johnson said. “And if a Republican member wanted to be there that was a good thing for the president and a good thing for America.”
He added: “I am sure that gave the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) heartache, but that was our default position.”
Tester is the top Democrat on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and would a natural attendee for the upcoming veterans’ health bill. But his central role in derailing the Jackson nomination would make his appearance even more awkward than those of Donnelly and Heitkamp.
And Trump has fired particularly harsh criticism at Tester, who he said last month “should resign” over his role in revealing allegations of professional misconduct by Jackson.
Trump has a warmer relationship with Heitkamp. His early legislative courtship of the senator from North Dakota, a state the president won by more than 35 points, came as he leaned on Democrats to get behind his tax reform bill following the slim defeat of the healthcare bill. Heitkamp ultimately joined all of her Democratic colleagues in voting against the tax bill.
Her opponent, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, has grown impatient, telling a North Dakota radio host that the fight over Heitkamp’s attendance at the banking bill signing “just seems to be an argument between Marc Short and other people in the White House.”
There are, he added, “some people in the White House that think, you know, the president’s too friendly too her.”