Dec 18, 2023 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain — Another Trump 2025 edge: a compliant Congress

Illustration of a hand emerging from the capitol dome giving a thumbs up hand sign.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If former President Trump wins next year, he'd have much greater power than in his first term — and fewer restraints on carrying out his political agenda. That's thanks to the trifecta of a more compliant cabinet, government workforce — and Congress.

Why it matters: We've shown how Trump would stack his cabinet and government with pre-vetted loyalists. This column is about the third reason he'd be able to move faster to punish enemies and impose his policies: very Trumpy congressional Republicans.

What's happening: Trump, if he wins, will enjoy vigorous backing from the vast majority of GOP leaders and rank-and-file Republicans. His biggest critics will be long gone.

  • Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is 81, has frozen twice on camera, and is loathed by Trump. McConnell has said he'll finish his term as leader, which ends after next year. Then he'll be under pressure to step aside — although he says he'll finish his Senate term, which ends after '26.
  • McConnell's replacement is certain to be more aligned with Trump — and less likely to challenge him the way McConnell has (mostly in private). 

The intrigue: We've learned that House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has held the gavel for seven weeks, talks regularly with Trump.

  • Johnson, who could remain party leader even if Republicans lose the House (although based on precedent, his fellow Louisianan, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, might get the job), will be more of a Trump enabler than former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Yes, McCarthy sucked up to Trump in public. But he also has been known to roll his eyes privately.
  • Pro-Trump forces have the power to oust Johnson or any leader who doesn't do Trump's bidding. Under the GOP's current rules, all it takes is one Republican to force a vote on removing the speaker. Assuming margins similar to those in the current House, as few as five Republicans could join with all Democrats to oust him.

Most of the likely House GOP leaders — including committee chairs or ranking members, depending on whether Republicans keep the majority — are vocal Trump supporters. When Trump took office in 2017, he was dependent on former Speaker Paul Ryan, whose disdain for the president was obvious.

  • Finally, Trump will benefit greatly from the absence of several of his biggest critics — most notably Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who's retiring after '24, and former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who lost her primary while repeatedly confronting Trump.

What they're saying: McCarthy, who's leaving the House at the end of this month, said in an interview that when Trump first came to Washington, "he didn't know the office, and he didn't know the Hill."

  • "Trump is stronger today politically than he was then," McCarthy told us. "He'll be better prepared: He knows the members personally — who can make things happen, who can deliver. They've been through battle together."

Behind the scenes: At first, very few members knew or trusted Trump, and vice versa. He had a chaotic transition after dumping Chris Christie's months of preparation. Now, most Republican lawmakers are dying to chat him up and curry favor.

  • The former president has dossiers on newer members — most of whom have begged for his endorsement over the past six years.

What we're hearing: We're told House and Senate Republicans would eagerly dive into a Trump agenda featuring tax cuts, energy security, border crackdowns, pressure on Big Tech, addiction prevention, and the death penalty for human traffickers and drug smugglers. Aid to Ukraine would move to the back burner; support for Israel would move to the front.

  • They also won't flinch at harder-edge Trump obsessions like immigration raids and retribution against enemies.

Who's who: Trump's enforcer would be House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, who talks often with the former president, and won his endorsement to succeed McCarthy as speaker.

  • Three other House members whose stock would rise: Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who turned heads in Trumpland with her devastating questioning of the college presidents; Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama, who's working with Trump's campaign on energy policy; and Rep. Max Miller of Ohio, an aide in Trump's White House.
  • A trio of GOP senators who'd have a ton of juice with Trump: Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio, who's such a favorite he could go into the administration; Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the current member of Senate leadership with whom Trump has the best relationship; and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a confidant when Trump was in the White House.

The big picture: This is all part of an emerging Trump government-in-waiting that would be much less haphazard than last time, and wired to change the country from Day 1.

  • Trump insiders tell us that although he shows little interest in the mechanics of governing, his team learned from the debacles of his first term. Advisers are systematically getting a machine ready to remake government in ways that couldn't easily be undone. A sign the operation has matured: Trump's team is working with Senate Republicans to help weed out the kind of scandal-plagued candidates who've hobbled the party in the past, Axios' Sophia Cai reports.
  • As you've seen from this series of "Behind the Curtain" columns: Trump 2.0 would be more disciplined and intentional — with more internal unanimity and more know-how about disrupting moderation and bureaucracy.

What to watch: Regardless of whether Trump wins, Republicans are expected to flip the Senate, given the favorable map. Abortion backlash is the biggest factor that could cost the GOP the Senate.

  • Democrats are expected to win back the House — although some top Republicans think a Trump win would let them eke out a majority.
  • Even if House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries becomes speaker, he'd likely have a tiny majority, like the one now bedeviling the GOP.

The bottom line: Trump would have a years-long head start with Congress — yet another way he'd leverage the most sophisticated preparation in history by an out-of-power party.

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