By Jordain Carney and Cristina Marcos - 08-04-17 06:02 AM EDT
President Trump is firing pointed criticism at the GOP Congress, ripping lawmakers for sending him a Russian sanctions bill he opposes while failing to negotiate an ObamaCare repeal bill.
While tensions between the president and GOP lawmakers have been simmering for months, the latest exchanges suggest a turn in the relationship.
Trump lamented Thursday that the U.S.-Russia relationship is "at an all-time and very dangerous low."
"You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us [healthcare]!" he tweeted.
It was the second day in a row that Trump ripped the Congress on both issues, and GOP lawmakers were happy to return fire.
"I try to not to respond to tweets ... [but] I will respond to this one and state, look, the relationship we have with Russia is solely because of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Corker added that there is "no reason" to tie healthcare to Russia sanctions.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said the poor U.S.-Russian relationship is "completely, completely Putin's fault," while Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted that Trump should direct his outrage at Putin, "the murderous dictator who attacked our democracy."
Tensions between Trump and congressional Republicans are understandable.
The president campaigned as an outsider running to challenge the Washington establishment, a move that frequently pitted him against the lawmakers he now needs to score legislative victories.
But the latest broadsides suggest the two sides are moving farther apart nearly seven months into the Trump presidency.
Trump's attacks on Republicans over the two policy issues come amid frustrations in the GOP Senate at the president's public insults of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a long-serving GOP senator who quit that job to join the administration.
The pressure on Sessions has been widely interpreted as a sign that Trump would like to get rid of Robert Mueller, the Justice Department's special counsel investigating Russia's meddling in last year's presidential election and possible ties to Trump's campaign. Sessions recused himself from oversight of the probe, to Trump's irritation.
News broke on Thursday that Mueller had empaneled a grand jury, a development sure to exacerbate tensions.
A number of Republicans bristled over Trump's accusations on Russia, though the House GOP leaders who negotiated the sanctions package were silent.
Aides to Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (Calif.) didn't return requests for comment.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also declined to weigh in. The Kentucky Republican frequently sidesteps Trump's tweets, except to note that the president should tweet less.
Still, Republicans are showing they don't feel strictly bound to a president with a sliding approval rating - 33 percent in one poll this week - and a campaign team under federal investigation.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), whose state Trump won by roughly 14 points, told reporters this week that "we work for the American people. We don't work for the president."
GOP senators introduced not just one, but two bills on Thursday to protect Mueller from being fired without due cause.
Both of the measures, unveiled separately by GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Christopher Coons (Del.), would block Trump or the Justice Department from unilaterally firing the special counsel.
Earlier, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) warned he would effectively block Trump from replacing Sessions by saying he would not have the time to schedule a new round of confirmation hearings this year.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, said Congress needed to assert its own authority, but downplayed the suggestion that lawmakers are treating Trump any differently than previous administration.
"I think it's important that Congress assert its authorities under the Constitution and be an equal branch of government. So how that translates or manifests itself ... remains to be seen," he said.
Before Trump's latest attack on Congress, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) published an excerpt of his upcoming book this week that described the GOP alliance with Trump as a "Faustian bargain," referring to a centuries-old story in which the main character makes a deal with the devil.
"If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?" wrote Flake.
Though the senator is a frequent Trump critic and the White House has talked to Republicans who could challenge Flake in a primary, the criticism was still seen as another important turning point in the relationship between the president and his congressional allies.
Despite Trump's stumbles, GOP strategist Ford O'Connell warned that lawmakers' distancing themselves from Trump was risky. Highlighting divisions with Trump while failing to fulfill major campaign promises would demonstrate to voters that Republicans can't govern, he warned.
"Running from Trump is a bad idea in terms of the policy and the agenda," O'Connell said. "They don't get it that their job is to govern."
It's also true that Republican lawmakers widely remain more than willing to not only work with Trump, but to get into his spotlight.
Trump helped GOP Sens. David Perdue (Ga.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) roll out an immigration proposal from the White House this week, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) credited the Trump administration for helping provide political momentum on his border security bill.
"I think this White House has been fully engaged with Congress," Johnson said. "I think this administration has gone out of its way to engage Congress, and I think that will continue."
But with GOP senators preparing to return back to their home states with few major legislative victories, Johnson had some blunt advice for Republicans: Do better.
"It's not good enough. We've got to do better," he told reporters, asked about the past six months. "We have to organize our efforts."