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In Congress: Work. Dodge tweets. Repeat.

Why We Wrote This

For lawmakers, responding to the president’s tweets can be a full-time job – one that many would prefer to avoid. This week, tweet-mania drowned out congressional progress on spending bills.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska, speaks with reporters following a GOP policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 31, 2018.

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There are presidential tweets Republicans on the Hill can ignore. Then there are the tweets they wish they could ignore but that wind up dominating the news cycle. On Wednesday, lawmakers were confronted with a barrage of questions about President Trump’s tweet that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should shut down special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It not only sent reporters scurrying, but it also drowned out a genuinely positive narrative for lawmakers: that they are actually getting stuff done. Responding to the president’s clearly stated position this spring that he will never again sign another gargantuan, all-in-one spending bill, senators have been working diligently – and cooperatively – to pass more bite-sized packages before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. But as senators streamed in and out of the chamber for votes, the media swarmed them with questions about the president’s tweet. “I am not going to comment, because I don’t know what it means, because – you know what? I haven’t paid attention to news this morning,” said GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She added: “The news that was important to me was passing these appropriations bills.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski had just walked off the Senate floor on Wednesday when she found herself in a tight reporter scrum, a cluster of phones and digital recorders held toward her face.

A reporter explained that the president had just tweeted that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should shut down special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and asked the Republican senator what she thought the tweet meant.

“I am not going to comment, because I don’t know what it means, because – you know what? I haven’t paid attention to news this morning,” the Alaskan said.

The reporter interrupted: “Can I read it to you?”

Senator Murkowski, ignoring him, went on: “...because the news that was important to me was passing these appropriations bills.”

As she started to move down a hallway off-limits to media, she could be heard saying, “I’m so tired [of]…” But then the reporter called after her that he had read the tweet to Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, and that Senator Collins gasped and said, “It’s unbelievable.”

Murkowski turned. Looking at the scrum, held back as if by an invisible cordon, she remarked exasperatedly: “Well then, Susan is probably right.”

Before this era of an unfiltered president with a digital megaphone, reporters might have been asking Murkowski about the unusual speed and bipartisanship with which the Senate is passing spending bills these days – including a package on Wednesday where Murkowski played a key role. Instead, it once again became a day in which lawmakers found they could get no message across, aside from their reactions to President Trump’s Twitter feed. 

There are tweets Republicans on the Hill can ignore; then there are the tweets they wish they could ignore, but that wind up dominating the news cycle. This one – which some Democrats argued amounted to obstruction of justice – not only sent reporters scurrying, but also drowned out a genuinely positive narrative for lawmakers: they are actually getting stuff done.

Responding to the president’s own clearly stated position this spring that he will never again sign another gargantuan, all-in-one spending bill, senators have been working diligently – and cooperatively – to pass more bite-sized spending packages before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has cut the August recess short to get this work, along with more nominations, done (with the politically convenient side effect of keeping Democrats, who have more seats than Republicans up this cycle, off the campaign trail).

Funding the government is one of lawmakers’ most basic jobs. If they were doing it properly, they would pass 12 separate bills to fund each of the government agencies, rather than create the usual showdowns – and sometimes shutdowns – over one massive, indecipherable bill that’s used for political leverage. Senator McConnell and minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York have been meeting daily to move the spending bills along, and Republicans got buy-in from the White House to clear nine of the bills before the September deadline.

But then a tweet tornado hit. Mr. Trump tweeted on Sunday that he would be willing to shut down the government if Democrats don’t agree to funding border security – including a wall. Shutdown chaos is the last thing Republicans want just before an election. But they were forced to field reporters’ queries about it all week.

As senators streamed in and out of the chamber for votes, the media swarmed them with questions: Do they think the president really wants a shutdown? Would a shutdown hurt Republicans in the midterms? What do they make of Trump calling for Mr. Sessions to end the Mueller investigation right as the trial of his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was getting under way?

A typical response from Republicans was, “you’ll have to ask the president what he means” – along with insisting they’re just focused on getting their work done. 

Sen. Thom Tillis (R) of North Carolina stopped briefly to talk to reporters. Should legislation protecting the special counsel (which Senator Tillis has co-sponsored) now get a vote on the Senate floor? “No,” Tillis responded. “[Trump] wants to see the investigation closed. He didn’t say anything in the record that I’ve reviewed this morning that said he wants [Mueller] fired. There’s a difference.”

Indeed, the president’s lawyers and spokesperson later described Trump’s tweet as an opinion, not an order, because Trump used the word “should” instead of “must,” writing: “This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now…”

But Tillis’s careful response revealed the degree to which the senator – or an aide – must have studied the tweet itself. Which points to a sifting that frequently takes place: Tweets to worry about, tweets not to worry about; tweets a Republican can let slide; tweets a Republican is going to have to comment on.

Either way, it was clear Tillis would have preferred not to deal with such questions at all. Within seconds, the lanky politician turned and strode into the chamber.

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