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Trump's turbulent two weeks 'exhausting' Pa., N.J. Republicans

Local Republicans are not yet abandoning the president, not while tax reform, a health-care repeal, and infrastructure program still seem possible. But their anxiety is mounting.

WASHINGTON — After two chaotic weeks that shook Washington, Republicans from the Philadelphia area are tired, frustrated, and facing political peril from the maelstrom surrounding President Trump.

They are not yet abandoning the president; not while tax reform, a health-care repeal, and infrastructure program still seem possible. But their anxiety is mounting. Republicans who hoped Trump would turn their long-sought priorities into reality worry that instead his problems may smother them.

"It's been exhausting," said Rep. Ryan Costello, of Chester County, who said he'd much rather expend this kind of energy on health-care legislation or meeting with constituents. "If we're heading in a direction where it's going to be like what we've experienced in the last two weeks, we're not going to get things done."

Every time a new story breaks, Costello said, aides are diverted to gather information and respond to press inquiries and constituent calls. Back in their districts, legislative initiatives are being snowed under. Dreams of fast action on a bold agenda have faded.

"It's not what people are talking about," said Rep. Patrick Meehan, of Delaware County. Controversies are "the stuff of what is on the front page of the papers, in the evening news, and it dominates the discussions at the diner. It isn't about the things that I think are most important."

The cascade of damaging news -- including Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey, revelations that Trump shared classified information with Russia, and the president's inflammatory reactions -- put new tension on the awkward bargain establishment Republicans have struck: to live with an abrasive president who often makes them cringe, hoping it pays off in the form of major legislative achievements that are only possible with the GOP controlling Congress and the White House.

The relationship between Trump and mainstream Republicans is especially fraught in the Philadelphia suburbs, where the president was widely rejected last year and where Republicans have been uneasy with him from the start. Meehan and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, of Bucks County, both said they didn't vote for Trump but instead cast write-in presidential ballots for his running mate, Mike Pence. Sen. Pat Toomey waited until an hour before polls closed to announce his vote for Trump. And Costello would say only that he was "supporting the Republican nominee."

If Trump's poll numbers keep slipping, Republicans in competitive Southeast Pennsylvania and South Jersey could be on the front lines of the fallout in midterm elections next year. But they also need his help to pass the kind of bills they can tout as accomplishments.

So when Republicans from the area were asked last week whether they still had faith in Trump, they mostly answered by instead talking about the agenda he might support.

"It's important to have a president that's willing to sign the legislation that we want to send him," said Toomey, who is eager to roll back regulations and cut taxes.

Meehan and Costello cited their hopes to revamp the Affordable Care Act, overhaul the tax code, and, perhaps, approve a vast infrastructure program.

But Republicans throughout the region said getting those things done will require more effort and focus from Trump. Toomey, for one, "believes that a shake-up which instills a new level of discipline is in order" at the White House, his spokesman wrote in an email.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Pa.) said GOP friends from the area have confessed far more concern about Trump in private than they are willing to share in public.

"I do not know one of my House Republican friends who happens to be an actual supporter of President Trump," Boyle said. But the Philadelphian added that those House Republicans would face political blowback if they were to speak out, because Trump still has support from the GOP base.

Republican congressmen from the area said the Comey firing and questions about links between the Trump campaign and Russia deserve scrutiny, but that they wanted a full accounting of the facts.

Rep. Tom MacArthur of South Jersey was one of the only local lawmakers who late last week didn't hesitate when asked if he still had faith in Trump.

"Let's be fair about it: The far left is in constant attack mode, and that's making it difficult to govern, and I think it's important for members of our party in the House not to pile on,"  MacArthur said. "So I will wait and see where the facts lead before I start issuing judgments on people's actions."

By Thursday, Republicans hoped the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel assigned to investigate potential links between the Trump campaign and Russia would calm the waters, and help them get back on track. That investigation is likely to spring fewer leaks, and gives Republicans cover. Whenever they are pressed on the latest revelation, they can point out that it is all in Mueller's hands.

"One of the good things about having that investigation move to its proper, independent forum is that we can now focus on doing our job that we were sent here to do," said Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent who said Comey's firing raised questions.

But less than 24 hours later, more bombshells fell. The New York Times reported Friday that Trump had called Comey a "nut job" and told Russian officials that firing him relieved some pressure. Minutes later the Washington Post reported that a current White House official is a person of interest in the investigation into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia.

That all came shortly after Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) had a warning for Republicans who stay on board with Trump.

"You know," Norcross said in an interview, "there's people who stayed on the Titanic until it went down, also."

Everything is happening so fast — or at least that's how it feels trying to follow politics these days. You've seen the headlines about President Trump and his policies — but what do they mean for Philadelphia? What does that mean for you? We're launching a newsletter to explore just that.  Sign up here.