WASHINGTON - A growing number of congressional Republicans expressed exasperation Friday over what they view as President Donald Trump's indefensible behavior, a sign that the president's stranglehold on his party is starting to weaken as Congress hurtles toward a historic impeachment vote.
In interviews with more than 20 GOP lawmakers and congressional aides in the past 48 hours, many said they were repulsed by Trump’s decision to host an international summit at his own resort and incensed by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s admission - later withdrawn - that U.S. aid to Ukraine was withheld for political reasons. Others expressed anger over the president’s abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria.
One Republican, Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida - whose district Trump carried by 22 percentage points - did not rule out voting to impeach the president and compared the situation to the Watergate scandal that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.
"I'm still thinking about it, you know?" Rooney said of backing impeachment. "I've been real mindful of the fact that during Watergate, all the people I knew said, 'Oh, they're just abusing Nixon, and it's a witch hunt.' Turns out it wasn't a witch hunt. It was really bad."
The GOP's rising frustration is a break from the past three years, when congressional Republicans almost uniformly defended Trump through a series of scandals that engulfed the White House. There's now a growing sense among a quiet group of Republicans that the president is playing with fire, taking their loyalty for granted as they're forced to "defend the indefensible," as a senior House Republican said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.
A few Republicans are starting to say they flat-out won't do it anymore - particularly the president's choice of his Trump National Doral Miami golf resort for next year's Group of Seven summit of world leaders, a selection that will benefit him financially.
"You have to go out and try to defend him. Well, I don't know if I can do that!" steamed a frustrated Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. "I have no doubt that Doral is a really good place - I've been there, I know. But it is politically insensitive. They should have known what the kickback is going to be on this, that politically he's doing it for his own benefit."
To be sure, Republican leadership in the House and Senate - and many rank-and-file GOP lawmakers - are still firmly behind Trump, who remains immensely popular with the party base. While several have criticized the president over policy, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, they have argued against impeachment.
On Friday, Trump's top allies continued to defend him, playing down the Doral announcement and doing damage control for Mulvaney's blunder, in which their former House colleague contradicted Trump's "no quid pro quo" talking point and admitted that the president had withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to force Ukraine to pursue an investigation that would benefit him politically.
Hours after the comments, Mulvaney sought to walk back his remarks.
"I don't see what the big deal is, frankly," Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said of Trump's decision to host the G-7 at Doral.
On Ukraine, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said, "I think Mick was very clear in cleaning up the statement, that there was no quid pro quo."
Other Republicans shrugged off the latest controversies, including Trump's choice of his Florida resort for the international meeting.
"I think the optics aren't good . . . but we have a lot more problems to worry about," said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said the Doral announcement"doesn’t bother me a great deal" even as he admitted, “I think there is certainly an appearance of conflict of interest.”
Still, there was a notable shift in tone, even among some of Trump’s most adamant defenders. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticized Trump’s Syria decision in an op-ed in The Washington Post, just days after 129 House Republicans backed a resolution condemning the president’s move.
"Withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake," wrote McConnell, who rarely criticizes Trump and never mentioned the president's name in the op-ed. "It will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances."
Meanwhile, several GOP lawmakers have reached out to White House officials to urge Trump to reconsider his Doral decision, which they worry smacks of corruption, according to GOP officials familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. At the very least, they're pressing Trump to publicly commit to hosting the international leaders free, to avoid any appearance that he's using his office to enrich himself.
"This is a legitimate criticism. The profit issue? That clearly has to be transparent," said one longtime Trump ally, Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., who has raised his own concerns and is under the impression that Trump will host the event without charge.
Reed often criticizes Joe Biden for allowing his son Hunter to be paid $50,000 a month for sitting on a Ukrainian board while he was vice president. Reed said that standard "applies to anyone else, including everybody in the White House."
"I would encourage those at the White House to look at the optics and appearance of this," he continued. "Even the appearance of impropriety is something we need to take into consideration. I have concerns about this."
Reed isn't alone.
"I'm not sure the wisdom of that" Doral decision, said Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., who announced his retirement this year in part out of frustration with Trump. "It just further fans the flames that the Democrats have been ranting about."
Some Republicans are skeptical that Trump will hear them out, however, noting that in the past he's scolded his own children for allowing charity events on his property without charging. "Zero chance they do it for free," one GOP official predicted. "Remember all the Eric Trump cancer fundraiser stuff? Trump went ballistic when he found out the club wasn't charging the charity."
Republicans are also privately griping about Mulvaney's admission on Ukraine. "Get over it," Mulvaney told reporters at the White House on Thursday before he walked it back.
"It's not an Etch A Sketch," said Rooney, who asked: "What is a walkback? I mean, I tell you what, I've drilled some oil wells I'd like to walk back - dry holes."
He added: "I couldn't believe it. . . . When the president has said many times there wasn't a quid pro quo . . . and now Mick Mulvaney goes up and says, 'Yeah, it was all part of the whole plan!' "
As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rooney has participated in the closed-door interviews of current and former Trump administration officials in the impeachment probe.
He said he has been increasingly concerned by revelations regarding the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine, but at this point he did not see the allegations against Trump rising to the level of Nixon's wrongdoing. "But I think we need to get all the facts on the table. And every time one of these ambassadors comes and talks, we learn a lot more."
The new GOP grievances with Trump couldn't come at a worse time for the president.
House Democratic leaders are moving rapidly in their impeachment probe and could hold a vote by the holiday season. They have been turning up an increasingly robust body of evidence showing that the president pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden, a 2020 presidential contender, and his son Hunter.
Additionally, a majority of voters now back the idea of ousting Trump from office - even more Republicans are supporting impeachment.
Yet Republicans believe that Trump has made it harder for them to help him politically survive impeachment and win reelection. For one, his Doral announcement undercuts his own argument that Biden did something wrong when he allowed his son to make a profit from a Ukraine company board. Trump is now boosting his own bottom line from the Oval Office, they noted.
Even House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who frequently appears on Fox News to praise Trump, seemed uncomfortable about the Doral decision. Asked if he had a problem with it, he responded: "I don't know how decisions are made on something like the G-7. Secret Service and a lot of other agents are involved with that and concerned about security . . . so I don't' know what factors they used in deciding the locations."
The only Republicans who applauded Trump's move were a handful from Florida. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents the district that includes Doral, said that he was"thrilled" and that the move was "great for the economy of Doral." Sen. Rick Scott agreed, arguing, "There's no conflict of interest in holding anything in the great state of Florida."
“I understand the arguments others are going to make about whether it’s lining his pocket at this event and so forth, but as a Floridian, you know, I think it’s good for Florida to have that event,” said Sen. Marco Rubio.