Meet Trump's closest friends in Congress

President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech on Tuesday before Congress follows a year of growing pains as the ...

Posted: Jan 30, 2018 1:20 PM
Updated: Jan 30, 2018 1:20 PM

President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech on Tuesday before Congress follows a year of growing pains as the new White House has learned how to work with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The President's first year with lawmakers was marked by highs, lows and lots and lots of tweets -- from feuding with the Senate Majority Leader on Twitter to singing his party's praises on the steps of the White House after the tax reform bill was passed; from striking an unexpected short-term spending deal with Democratic leaders to blasting the Senate Minority Leader as "Fake Tears Chuck Schumer," "Cryin' Chuck," and "head clown"; from allowing cameras to film a nearly-hour long meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to rejecting the immigration proposal that many members of that same group pitched just days later.

Despite some big wins, Trump has certainly had his detractors. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake essentially wrote a whole book against Trump and has delivered multiple speeches on the Senate floor criticizing the President. Republican Sen. Bob Corker said Trump was setting the country "on the path to World War III." A group of House Democrats introduced articles of impeachment (which have no chance of success in a GOP-controlled Congress).

But Trump has also developed some key relationships with influential players in Congress. While some of those friendships have frayed at times, they've mostly gotten back on track, and Republicans have largely adopted a strategy of keeping the President close for the sake of getting things done.

Here's a look at the allies

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia -- Cotton and Perdue have been two of the most consistent allies of Trump throughout the past year, in large part because of their shared views on immigration. In August, the President publicly supported their bill that would curb the levels of legal immigration and focus on a skills-based system. They were also included in immigration talks between the White House and other members of Congress recently, and Trump golfed with Perdue in late December.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina -- Graham went from being a bitter 2016 rival to one of Trump's closest friends in the Senate. Since Trump became President, he has golfed with Graham three times, more than he has with any other senator. And Graham has lauded not only Trump's golf game but also his golf course, calling Trump's property in West Palm Beach, Florida, "spectacular."

RELATED: Republican senators who once criticized Trump have learned how to work with him

At the same time, Trump repeatedly endorsed the Graham-Cassidy health care effort last fall. The bill failed to go anywhere in the Senate, but Graham is still hopeful Congress will address it this year. Most recently, Graham worked closely with the White House on immigration and helped lead a bipartisan group of senators to strike a deal on DACA. But their deal was swiftly rejected by the President, causing some friction. But with the latest release of the White House's immigration deal -- and Trump's openness to a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers -- Graham said he has "never felt better about our chances of finding a solution on immigration."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky -- Paul was at times a thorn in the President's side last year -- most noticeably in September, when the senator was poised to derail one of the many Obamacare repeal efforts -- and he certainly wasn't immune to Trump's Twitter attacks. But the two seem to have struck some harmony. They golfed twice last year, and Trump signed an Obamacare-related executive order in October that was inspired by legislation Paul had been pushing for months.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah -- Hatch and Trump aren't golf partners, but Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, helped deliver Trump his greatest victory last year with the passage of a bill to overhaul the tax system. At a White House event celebrating the event, Hatch gave some of the most laudatory praise of Trump by any lawmaker. He said Trump is "living up to everything I thought (he) would" and he vowed to help "make this the greatest presidency that we've seen." In return, Trump tweeted some praise of his own for Hatch, who's retiring next year after more than 40 years in the Senate. "He has been a tremendous supporter, and I will never forget the (beyond kind) statements he has made about me as President. He is my friend and he will be greatly missed in the US Senate!"

House Speaker Paul Ryan -- Despite his reluctance to endorse Trump during the campaign, Ryan has turned out to be an important ally of Trump's. He worked relentlessly to get tax reform and an effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed in the House, despite a fractured a Republican Party. While Ryan would sometimes disagree with Trump's more controversial comments in the past year, his criticisms were widely considered mild compared to other more vocal Republican voices.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy -- One of Trump's most recent guests to Mar-a-lago was the California congressman. The two had dinner one Sunday night earlier this month, and Trump showcased his guest before the press by stopping to talk to reporters. Just days earlier, McCarthy promptly interjected in a bipartisan meeting when Trump appeared poised to side with Democrats on a key immigration issue. McCarthy reminded the President to include border security in any agreement, and Trump backed down. As a sign of their friendship, The Washington Post reported that McCarthy sent a jar of pink and red Starbursts -- Trump's favorite -- to the President last fall, a thoughtful gesture that was greeted with a grin. McCarthy regularly says that Trump calls him and invites him to White House meetings.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise -- The Louisiana Republican has become a reliable ally of Trump's over the past year. He has helped whip some of Trump's biggest wins in the House, like tax reform and an Obamacare repeal and replace bill (which went nowhere in the Senate). When Scalise was severely injured in the baseball field shooting last year, Trump visited Scalise in the hospital and tweeted out his thoughts and prayers. Trump praised Scalise at the White House event celebrating tax reform, saying "he's braver than all of us" and joked that the gunshot wound was "a hell of a way to lose weight." Scalise has also been insistent that any immigration deal include money for a border wall, a key campaign promise of Trump's.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina -- As chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Meadows frequently deals with the White House. He was especially close with Steve Bannon before the former chief strategist was fired in August. The caucus frequently bucks GOP leadership and derailed an initial Obamacare repeal effort last year because members felt it didn't go far enough. That was problematic for the President, but Meadows and Trump appear to be on good terms since then. Meadows is a frequent defender of the President in the press and the two are known to speak often.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York -- The first member of Congress to endorse Trump, Collins is still a loyal friend to the now President and frequently defends some of his most controversial comments and actions. An example of that loyalty came recently when Collins split with most other New York Republicans to support the tax reform bill, which restricted the state and local tax deduction -- a key tax break in an expensive state like New York.

It's complicated

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee -- Corker was once considered a potential pick for Trump's secretary of state but he ultimately became one of Trump's fiercest critics in the Senate, saying at one point that Trump's policies were setting the country "on the path to World War III." As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his comments didn't go unnoticed. He also vowed to oppose the tax reform plan, saying he didn't support anything that increased the deficit, but he ultimately came around and supported the bill in the end. CNN's Manu Raju reported the two are making amends, and Corker has noticeably refrained from criticizing the President of late. He also traveled on Air Force One with Trump earlier this month to an event in Tennessee. The repaired relationship may be owed to the fact that Corker is eager to fix the Iran nuclear deal and may need the President's backing for any legislative solution.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia -- As the most conservative Democrat in the Senate from a state that Trump won by 42 points, Manchin, who's up for re-election this year, has worked to build a reputation as a broker between Democrats and the Trump White House. He sided with Republicans on key votes, such as the nomination of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. However, Manchin ultimately didn't support the tax reform bill, which caused Trump to unleash on Manchin in a New York Times interview last month. "You know, we hear bulls*** from the Democrats. Like Joe Manchin. Joe's a nice guy ... He talks. But he doesn't do anything. He doesn't do. 'Hey, let's get together, let's do bipartisan.' I say, 'Good, let's go.' Then you don't hear from him again. I like Joe. You know, it's like he's the great centrist. But he's really not a centrist."

Less than a month later, however, Manchin was back in the White House meeting with Trump on immigration alongside Sen. Doug Jones, another Democrat from a red state, last week. "I've always had a good relationship with him, I know he's maybe, he gets a little rambunctious at times and he says things, but we're big guys, we can take that," Manchin told CNN. "This is a pretty, can be a pretty tough occupation at times. And you have to be prepared for that."

Other red-state Democrats -- As lawmakers decide when to stand and applaud at the President's remarks on Tuesday, keep a close eye on Democrats like Manchin, who are up for re-election this year in states that Trump won. Trump traveled to many of those states, such as North Dakota and Indiana -- along with those Democrats Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly, respectively -- to pitch his tax plan last fall. Ultimately, none of them voted with Republicans to support the bill. But many of these senators choose their words carefully when it comes to talking about the President and his policies.

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