Trump Is Attacking Republicans Like a Dictator and It Could Tear the Party Apart

Dean Heller, Donald Trump
President Donald Trump gestures toward Senator Dean Heller (R-NeV.) while delivering remarks on health care and Republicans' inability thus far to replace or repeal the Affordable Care Act, during a lunch with members of Congress in the State Dining Room of the White House on July 19, in Washington, D.C. Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images

A month after publicly denouncing a health care bill that the president was desperate to pass, Senator Dean Heller sat uncomfortably alongside President Donald Trump in front of rolling cameras. Holding the floor, Trump did not disappoint, addressing the awkwardness head on with a veil of humor so thin it stood no chance of obscuring anyone's view of the true threat at its heart.

"Look, he wants to remain a senator doesn't he?" Trump said with a smirk.

Heller rocked his head back and initially burst into a laugh. But, with a subtle yet significant hand on his arm, Trump let him know that the warning was not to be taken lightly.

"And I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think the people are going to appreciate what you hopefully will do," the Republican president added.

And with that, the uneasiness of being a Republican in the era of the most unpredictable and self-serving president in modern history was laid bare in a few seconds of rapidly unfolding facial expressions. Just weeks after that exchange, Heller, the only Republican senator up for re-election in 2018 in a state carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton, learned his re-election hopes had become yet more perilous with the emergence of a primary challenger accusing him of obstructing the president's agenda.

Having unexpectedly gained control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, this should have been a time for Republican rejoicing on Capitol Hill, after having been blessed with the opportunity to advance a legislative agenda crafted through eight long years of frustration during Democrat Barack Obama's presidency. Instead, just seven months in, Congress and the White House are locked in a private as well as an increasingly public conflict that has the potential to both scupper their hopes in the 2018 midterms and shift the party yet further to the fringe right.

In Trump, Republicans have come up against a president who refuses to tolerate any semblance of opposition, even for the greater good of the party. Having leeway to vote against the president on certain issues in order to preserve voter support back home has been common under past administrations. According to Larry Sabato, director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, there's good reason for that.

"It's practical," Sabato told Newsweek last week. "It's the obvious thing to do. Other presidents have had good sense, He doesn't have good sense, he doesn't understand politics."

Last week, Trump delivered his most stinging rebuke yet to a Republican who dared to cross him. In a sharply delivered tweet, he described Senator Jeff Flake as "toxic" and, to the dismay of the Republican establishment, threw his support behind the Arizona senator's primary opponent.

Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017

In Nevada, too, Trump's influence is already being felt. Two weeks ago, Las Vegas resident Danny Tarkanian—the son of a famed University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach and a five-time defeated candidate for political office—entered the fray, pitching himself as someone who would bring the kind of loyalty to the president that Heller has lacked.

"I've gotten so many calls, emails, texts encouraging me to run against Dean Heller," he told Newsweek on the day of his announcement. "They all were telling me, 'Hey, we're never going to get President Trump's "America First" policies passed unless we get senators in office who are going to support the president's policies.'"

Backing up those comments, Tarkanian last week launched the website, which is composed solely of quotes and other purported evidence that the Nevada senator was "never Trump."

While a fillip for Trump, Tarkanian's entry into the race is also a boost for Democrats—currently represented in the race by U.S. Representative Jacky Rosen, who defeated Tarkanian in winning her House seat in 2016. As they aim to grab a seat that is surely a must-win if they are to have any hope of taking back the Senate and obstructing Trump's agenda, Democrats are eager to capitalize on the Republican infighting.

"It's going to make this incredibly tough for Heller," Stewart Boss, communications director for the Nevada State Democratic Party, told Newsweek last week. "He's going to have to thread this needle for the next year of trying to appease a Trump base in Nevada that doesn't trust him while he's definitely going to face a tough general election."

The signs are that Heller and Tarkanian could be set for a near repeat of last week's special election in Alabama, in which the three leading Republican candidates to take now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions's old Senate seat were fighting in an attempt to portray themselves as the most pro-Trump.

In Nevada, though, that would be a perilous strategy. The state is trending blue, and in 2016 not only voted for Clinton but returned Democrats to majority control of both houses of the state legislature. In the first half of 2017, Trump has an approval rating of 44 percent in Nevada, which, while higher than he has recorded nationally, is not exactly something to trumpet. Heller encountered some of his state's most vicious opposition to Trump first-hand, when a note threatening to kill the senator over his health care vote was taped to the door of his Las Vegas office.

Toward the end of June, Heller held a press conference with Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval during which he made it clear he would not support the GOP health care bill. A month later, though, following Trump's very public threat and attack ads run against him by a pro-Trump group, he voted in favor of Republicans' much-maligned "skinny repeal" of Obamacare, which was eventually defeated by a single vote.

"You had to take a positon on that, you just had to," Sabato said. "Do your best to argue for it and people might at least respect you a little. When you voted in prior times to abandon Obamacare and replace it and then you can't decide what you want to do and then Trump kind of embarrasses you and sure enough you vote with him. I just think he looked like a human piece of marshmallow."

Indeed, Heller's flip-flopping is now set to be a focal point of the campaign against him—from both the right and the left.

"A big emphasis on our part is going to be pointing people back to not what he says but what he does and how he votes," Boss said of the Democratic campaign against Heller, "which not coincidentally is probably going to be Danny Tarkanian's message, too."

Were Trump to make the same direct intervention in the Nevada election as he has in Arizona against Flake, it would further fracture the relationship between the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Amid the dramatic failure of the health care effort, Trump lashed out not only at Heller and Flake, but by publicly slamming McConnell.

Jeff Flake is an excellent Senator and a tireless advocate for Arizona and our nation. He has my full support. -MM

— Team Mitch (Text MITCH to 47360) (@Team_Mitch) August 17, 2017

Such a rift between the president and the man charged with rallying support in the Senate presents an unhelpful roadblock to hopes of advancing both a Republican and a Trump agenda. More trouble could yet await the president. Following his much-criticized comments about violence at a white nationalist rally earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia, and with his approval ratings at historic lows, Republicans are feeling emboldened to criticize Trump in a manner they have shied away from since he entered the White House.

And yet any obituaries of the Trump presidency may have to wait a while. Through a pure dose of election mechanics, rather than any inspired political maneuvering, Trump has an avenue to actually come out of the 2018 midterms in a stronger position.

Thanks to Democrats' success in 2006 and 2012, the 2018 map will see them defending 25 seats, compared to the Republicans' eight. What's more, 10 of the Democrats up for re-election are in states carried by Trump in 2016; five are in states he won by landslides.

"Let's suppose Republicans add net two or three seats," said Sabato, "then they're set in the Senate, they can lose Heller, lose Flake add net two or three seats, they're in a better position and Trump will have sent a message to other Republicans, which is, 'If you cross me, I'll make sure you lose.'"

Tarkanian, for one, is determined to make that message ring true and ensure that 2018 ends with the battle between the White House and Congress tilted in Trump's favor.

"I believe President Trump's 'America First' policies are a positive and they're working," Tarkanian said, "He's done it without the help of the Senate or Congress. Just think how good we would be right now if we could get more of his policies past the House and Senate."