With all the controversies, scandals, tough headlines and reported infighting in the White House, it would have been easy for Republican power players speaking at a summit this weekend to vent and bash the Trump administration -- but they didn’t.
Those Republicans invited to speak at Mitt Romney's annual E2 Summit this weekend -- far from Washington in Park City, Utah, -- have been some of the vocal critics of Donald Trump, but instead of distancing themselves from the president, they instead told friends and colleagues at the event they are cautiously optimistic about his administration and want to help it succeed.
“Don’t you want to help the president? Don’t you think we all should?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked the intimate crowd of GOP donors, businessmen and politicians from around the country.
“We are much closer than we were just immediately following the election,” the summit’s host, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said about Trump.
“I think we have a president who is learning,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., agreed. “He’s got a national security team that is as strong as I have ever seen.”
Despite very public disagreements with the current president, all three of these men spoke kindly as they offered their advice, driving home the idea that they still think congressional Republicans and Trump could work together. They spoke about building bridges with the administration and their confidence in the current cabinet.
Do something about Russia
Graham, McCain and Romney all agreed, first and foremost, that the president needs to take a tougher stand on Russia and acknowledge the severity of Vladimir Putin's attempt to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. Romney said that much of the conspiracy theories about Trump, his taxes and his staff could have been avoided had the president said outright, “this is outrageous.”
“No one is suggesting it affected the outcome, but [Russians] tried to affect the outcome. This is outrageous,” he said, suggesting Trump tell the country, “I hope the FBI carries out a thorough investigation of who has anything to do with this and let’s move on.”
“Instead, when you attack and say it is fake news, you just bring more and more attention and more and more people say, ‘what’s going on here?'... The more you stir a turd, the more it stinks,” he continued.
Graham said Trump’s relationship with Putin was his single “biggest problem with the president,” but added, again, that he “wanted to help him.”
“He believes talking about Russian interference delegitimizes his win,” Graham echoed. “That’s not true.”
The South Carolina senator urged that the president back the bill he and McCain authored to increase sanctions on Russia, and threatened to work to override a veto should the president refuse to sign it. “I think it would serve the president well if we publicly say, ‘This is right, we should punish Russia for interfering in our elections.’”
“I will do anything I can to help this president, except give up my own judgment,” he added.
McCain told the crowd he is glad the president is calling Graham, his former primary opponent, more frequently. Graham joked that he begged the president not to tweet on Thursday during the Comey hearing. Listening, these men said, could serve the president well.
“I want you to understand, despite of all this clutter, that we can pull it off," Graham concluded his remarks. "We can do things that are good for this country and President Trump can be a consequential president. But if he doesn’t adjust the way he is behaving and he doesn’t let people help him, he is going to lose the last best chance our Republican Party has to change America and make our voice heard."
Go big, go green
During the event, Graham also offered domestic policy advice. He complimented the president’s willingness to take bold actions and offered that he “go big” on environmental and immigration issues.
“At the end of the day, the one thing I can tell you about Trump -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- he is willing to do things that no other Republican would think about doing,” Graham said. “How about a carbon fee?”
He argued that the president could both reinvigorate the coal and clean energy technology industries by calling for the federal government to put a price on carbon. A rather liberal idea, Graham said, could have economic advantages for the country and political pluses for his party.
“If you are from 18 to 35 [years old] this is a top-five issue for your consistency. Whether we like it or not, young people have been educated through movies and TV that we need to be better stewards of God’s creation,” he said. “We need to get into environmental game and not give it all to Al Gore.”
“Is it hard politics? Hell yes,” he added. “Trump might do it. I am going to advocate that he thinks big.”
Appealing to better angels
Romney’s advice for the White House was statelier -- almost grandiose. Without naming Trump, he closed his speech with a soliloquy, which seemed to allude to the current president and what his ideas and term so far had meant for the reputation of the country.
“If you want to make America great, you’ve got to believe in goodness,” he said, becoming emotional and choked up at times. “We stand with good people and good leaders."
“What does this country represent? Human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, a conviction that we should aspire for every person to have equal opportunity,” he continued. “Do we welcome the huddled masses of the earth yearning to be free? That's who we are. That's the cost in the ground in Arlington.”