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Many Florida lawmakers choose silence over getting sucked in White House maelstrom

Whether Putin or Stormy, tariffs or North Korea, many of President Trump’s fellow Republicans have gone dark. Call them the "quiet caucus."
Marine One approaches the White House carrying President Donald Trump after a weekend in Florida on March 25, 2018. [Zach Gibson | Getty Images]
Marine One approaches the White House carrying President Donald Trump after a weekend in Florida on March 25, 2018. [Zach Gibson | Getty Images]
Published Mar. 30, 2018

WASHINGTON – Congressman Gus Bilirakis began the new year with an open plea for civility. "While many in D.C. may be indifferent to the state of today's politics, my constituents are sick and tired of it. … The tone of the national conversation has to change."

Elected officials, wrote the six-term Republican from Pinellas County, must transcend partisanship. "When we move beyond fearmongering and name-calling, there is no limit to what our nation can accomplish."

But in 475 words, he never mentioned the name-caller-in-chief: President Donald Trump.

In fact, Bilirakis has been largely mute about the controversy and chaos streaming from the White House over the past 14 months — and he's not alone. Many Florida Republicans in Washington, not unlike counterparts from across the country, are keeping their heads down as Trump bends the party to his will and lashes out at dissenters.

Call it the "quiet caucus."

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis

"I don't like to criticize anyone. It's just not my style," Bilirakis said in an interview. "I'm very selective, only when it's merited because I respect the office tremendously, whether held by a Republican or Democrat."

A review of news releases from his office shows ample, strongly worded criticism of Barack Obama. That may be expected in the era of extreme partisanship Bilirakis now decries. Yet Trump has smashed just about every convention, from Twitter attacks and controversial statements to policies that run counter to longstanding Republican orthodoxy or change by the day.

Whether Putin or Stormy, tariffs or North Korea, many of Trump's fellow Republicans have gone dark.

"There's no point in me weighing in on what's going on in the White House. There's no point," said Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, quickly cutting off a reporter in the Capitol on a recent afternoon.

"I was a strong critic of President Obama, but he was breaking the law, if you look at what he did with immigration and some of the other things," said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville, referring to executive actions, which Trump has made use of too. "President Trump has a personality that a lot of people might not agree with it, but it's personality. It's different than what we're accustomed to but is that a reason to speak out?"

Republicans, some whom privately convey alarm over Trump, want to keep their agenda moving. Party loyalty is another factor, though most members of Congress preferred other presidential candidates. Jeb Bush for Bilirakis, for example. And greatest of all they are interested in self-preservation.

Outspokenness could invite a primary challenge from the right; Republican challengers have already run ads questioning opponents' loyalty to the president, who remains popular with a base that sees the tumult in Washington as proof he's shaking up a broken system.

That base is needed to counter energized Democrats, who have been winning special elections. This month, Democrat Connor Lamb in Pennsylvania won a special U.S. House election in a district that Trump won by 20 percentage points. Trump captured Bilirakis' district by more than 18 points, yet Democratic rival Chris Hunter thinks that advantage has been diminished.

"Gus and the rest of them have abdicated their constitutional responsibility to hold the executive branch accountable," said Hunter, a former federal prosecutor, counting off Russian meddling and abuses of taxpayer money or other controversies from Trump administration officials. "They are afraid to stand up to a bully."

Republicans, too, feel this way.

"Over the last 18 months the president has said and done several things that warranted dissent from Republicans — not just from party leaders, but from rank-and-file legislators, pundits, and other commentators. But the dogs did not bark, opting to stay silent," syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote recently.

"The GOP has created a kind of collective-action problem for itself," Goldberg argued. "By making these individual decisions out of self-interest in the moment, the party ends up getting pulled in a direction not of its own choosing."

Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and lifelong Republican who left the party six months ago partly over Trump, said the GOP needs a "profiles in courage" moment.

"This hypocrisy really does drive people nuts," Paulson said. "If Obama had done what Trump is doing he would be pilloried by Republicans for his lack of strength, to backing down to Putin … And yet when your guy does it, you tend to rationalize it. That's the mess Republicans are in right now."

A historical comparison can be found in Southern Democrats' reluctance to embrace civil rights, Paulson said. "If you were soft or sympathetic to blacks, it ended your career."

He said Rep. Dan Webster, R-Clermont, would be an ideal voice as he's widely respected in Florida and Washington, having helped lead the GOP takeover in Tallahassee in the 1990s and embraced by conservatives in 2015 as a candidate for House speaker. "He's got this longtime image of being a straight shooter and upright individual," Paulson said.

But beyond criticizing Trump's reaction to the racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., Webster has remained out of the fray.

Republicans say they are focused on the legislative agenda and must pay attention to constituents rather than react to everything Trump does. Their criticism is typically contained to saying Trump shouldn't tweet as much.

"I wouldn't say I ignore it. I'm very cognizant of it," said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland. "But I also understand I have to take care of my constituency, and I'm not going to be bogged down trying to defend or explain things going on in the White House because I have no control over that. Do I accept the methods and manners? It's very difficult to. The results have been good in where we've been able to take the economy."

Some constituents, Ross noted, say he hasn't shown enough support for Trump.

"You can't discount their views simply because you don't like the messenger or you think it's an ugly message," said former Republican state Rep. J.C. Planas. "The folks that are being quiet, I think they are doing the right thing because we're all struggling to understand where the electorate is going. This is about listening to people."

To Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, part of the problem is Republicans on Capitol Hill are still trying to learn former Democrat Trump's politics. They struggle, like everyone else, to keep up with the rapid fire, daily eruptions.

"If you got yourself absorbed in every little bit of news of the day you would literally be in a maelstrom constantly. You can't live that way," he said.

"We just keep our head down and try to do the job we want to do for our constituents and hopefully it's not at odds with people in the administration," Rooney said. "You certainly don't want to be on a different page."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Miami, who as a presidential candidate vowed to drive around the country and warn voters against "con artist" Trump, has spoken out — his high profile means he draws more press attention. But he has done so selectively and often with nuance, a break from the constant hard-hitting criticism of Obama. Rubio has used a growing relationship with the president to win changes to U.S-Cuba relations and other policies.

A few Florida lawmakers have been critical, including Miami Reps. Carlos Curbelo, who is running for re-election in a district Hillary Clinton won easily, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring and has objected to a lot of what Trump has done.

"It's important to speak out as much as possible. I view that as our role," Curbelo said, adding that he understood why some colleagues do not want to get sucked into in the whirlwind. He gave up social media for Lent and has been less quick to opine (and felt more relaxed as a person).

"There is something unhealthy about feeling compelled to react to every single controversy or statement. But some of these issues are too important to just let them pass by," said Curbelo, who has criticized Trump's divisive rhetoric and immigration policy.

In the interview, Bilirakis said he wished Trump would lay off Twitter but found little to criticize otherwise. He thinks it's worth sitting down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, doesn't feel there was collusion with Russians and isn't concerned with the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels.

"I don't know what's factual or not with regard to this incident, the alleged affair with the porn star. I want to mind my own business and get things done. I want to work with the president and his administration," Bilirakis said naming several pieces of legislation he has supported that have become law, including health care funding. The party, he said, must stay on message to accomplish the next big ticket on Trump's agenda: infrastructure.

"To a certain extent," he said of the controversies, "it happens in every administration."

Trump has returned the warm feelings.

"Where's Gus? Gus Bilirakis," the president said at a Greek Independence Day celebration on March 22. "Hello, Gus. Thank you, Gus. Doing a great job."