WASHINGTON — President Trump’s efforts to move past a series of scandals and focus on his agenda were derailed on Thursday by an increasingly assertive Congress, including some restive Republicans fed up with White House chaos.
Trump’s hand-picked nominee for Veterans Affairs secretary abruptly withdrew from consideration under pressure from lawmakers, while the Environmental Protection Agency administrator faced grueling questioning by two separate House committees over his ethical scandals while in office.
The Senate also sent Trump a warning over the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election: A bill that seeks to prevent the president from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with Republican support.
A day that was supposed to revolve around celebrating the confirmation of Mike Pompeo as the president’s new secretary of state was instead bogged down by perceptions of mismanagement, endless controversies, and conflicting messages.
This week’s success — the visit by French President Emmanuel Macron — already seemed like a distant memory in the high-velocity frenzy of Trump’s rule in Washington. If there was any positive talk about the GOP’s tax cuts or upcoming consideration of plans to rescue the country’s crumbling infrastructure, they were completely drowned out in the swirl of an administration in disarray.
Trump only added to his own troubles by raging to the media. He called in to “Fox & Friends” first thing Thursday morning to defend his pick to lead the VA, Dr. Ronny Jackson, even though Jackson’s fate was already sealed. Jackson bowed out after senators from both parties were alarmed by allegations that he led a “toxic” work environment and had improperly prescribed pills while serving as the president’s personal physician. Former co-workers also alleged that Jackson drank on the job and crashed a government vehicle, which he denies.
“These are all false accusations,” the president fumed in the freewheeling interview that included his thoughts on Shania Twain and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. He suggested to the hosts that Jackson was a victim of a corrupt and unfair capital: “By the way, I did say welcome to Washington. Welcome to the swamp.”
Shortly after the president railed against the swamp, Scott Pruitt, the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency, arrived for the first of two brutal back-to-back hearings in the House largely focusing on his alleged lavish spending and ethical violations in office. Pruitt rented a Washington condo from the wife of a lobbyist for a below-market rate of $50 a night, spent liberally on first-class travel, and secured hefty raises for two of his top aides.
The EPA bought a $43,000 soundproof phone booth under his leadership, used for confidential conversations, though Pruitt denied knowing about that purchase.
“I think your actions are an embarrassment to President Trump,” Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat of New Jersey, told a blank-faced Pruitt at the beginning of the first hearing. “If I were the president, I wouldn’t want your help, I would just get rid of you.”
The chairman of the committee, Republican Greg Walden of Oregon, praised Pruitt for pushing an agenda of environmental deregulation but said the ethical questions “are too persistent to ignore.”
Senators said they want their turn to question him, too. Even Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, a staunch conservative who mentored Pruitt, is calling for an investigation into the allegations. Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, called Pruitt a “chucklehead” on an ABC News podcast.
The Pruitt and Jackson fracases have Republican lawmakers who are usually loath to criticize the president venting their displeasure.
“I know there’s frustration with the vetting process and I think everybody agrees on that,” said Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
Democrats accused Trump of sabotaging his own agenda and then blaming them for it.
“The president is sowing chaos when we need consistency,” said Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. “The president complains that the Senate can’t confirm a VA secretary, but denies that he’s created the chaos that prevents us from doing so.”
Another potentially ugly confirmation fight awaits lawmakers in May. Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, is still meeting with senators on the Select Committee on Intelligence to attempt to overcome deep skepticism about her involvement with the CIA’s interrogation program after the Sept. 11 attacks. Haspel supervised a “black site” in Thailand where a terror suspect was waterboarded, according to media reports, and later destroyed tapes showing such interrogations on orders from her boss.
Many Democrats and two Republicans appear to be leaning against her. Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and key vote on the committee, told the Globe she is still trying to determine exactly what Haspel’s role was in overseeing the interrogation of detainees before deciding how she will vote.
The negative stories about Trump’s nominees add to the unease some Republican lawmakers feel about the expanding Russia investigation and the president’s undisciplined response to it as they head into tough midterm elections this November.
On “Fox & Friends,” Trump issued a cryptic threat to the Justice Department, saying he tries to stay away from the probe but “at some point I won’t.” The remark is just the latest in a string of vague hints that Trump would fire the special counsel to make the investigation into his campaign, which he calls a “witch hunt,” go away.
Republicans have moved slowly on legislation to protect Mueller from Trump despite his threats, saying they do not believe it’s necessary. But on Thursday, four Republican senators joined Democrats to pass a bill out of the Judiciary Committee that would allow Mueller to challenge his firing if it were not for “good cause.”
Senator majority leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t bring the bill to the floor. But the committee vote is a sign that some in the Republican conference are pushing for stronger action to prevent the president from provoking a constitutional crisis.
Even a Republican senator who voted against the bill, Orrin Hatch, strongly warned the president in his remarks that he could face impeachment if he did fire Mueller.
“Firing Mueller would cause a firestorm and bring the administration’s agenda to a halt,” Hatch said.
Every day a White House Cabinet ethics scandal or the Russia investigation is dominating headlines is a day Republican lawmakers can’t sell their agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.
“Sometimes he gets in the way of his own message,” said Representative Peter King of New York. “It would help if he could tone down some of the comments — it would make it easier for us to get our message out.”