WASHINGTON — With President Donald Trump preparing to leave the White House as the only twice-impeached president in the country’s history, Republican leaders are publicly clashing over his future role in the party and whether he remains the GOP’s standard-bearer.
For some Republicans, the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was an inflection point, compelling 10 House Republicans to vote for his impeachment and spurring others to call for a clean break from Trump and his brand of politics.
"I think our identity for the past several years now has been built around an individual," Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Senate Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill. "We’ve got to get back to where it is built on a set of ideas and principles and policies, and I’m sure those conversations will be held. But it needs to happen pretty soon."
For Trump loyalists, including Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the real estate mogul and reality TV personality turned populist president will continue to serve as the leader of the Republican Party.
"Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere," Zeldin declared on Tuesday, in an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham.
The divergent viewpoints underscore the current split between those Republicans looking to distance the party from Trumpism, and those who argue the GOP will be the "Party of Trump" well into the future.
"You probably won't find many Republicans admitting that there's probably going to be a split in the party," said John Jay LaValle, the former Suffolk GOP chairman who worked on Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns. "You have the establishment Republicans, and then you have Trump Republicans. There is no question that there are those that are loyal to Donald Trump … and their loyalty is going to remain with the president."
Retired Rep. Peter King, who has praised Trump in the past but sternly condemned his conduct following the deadly Capitol attack, said Republicans "are not the party of Donald Trump, we’re not the party of anybody. We’re the Republican Party, and that’s what we should try to keep in mind."
"I think we have to realize that loyalty to Donald Trump does not determine whether or not you're a Republican," King said. "I mean there are things that Trump did right, there are things that Trump did wrong, and we can't be in a position where anytime you criticize something you think was wrong, that somehow you’re a traitor or a RINO [Republican In Name Only], or any of that crazy talk."
For the past four years Trump demanded and largely received unwavering loyalty from GOP leaders, but in the final month of his presidency his tight grip over the party started to loosen. Senate Republicans who once voted in lockstep with the president’s wishes reconvened last month to override a Trump veto on military spending. Republican leaders in Georgia publicly chided him over the loss of two Republican-held Senate seats that helped flip control of the chamber to Democrats. They argued that his comments and tweets spreading debunked claims of voter fraud led some Republicans to sit out the runoff election.
The final blow to Trump’s solid bloc of support came as a throng of his supporters, many heeding his calls to "fight much harder," stormed the U.S. Capitol, shattering windows and assaulting police officers, all amid chants calling for the death of Vice President Mike Pence.
Two of Trump’s Cabinet members swiftly resigned, 10 House Republicans, including Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, voted in favor of impeachment, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had fought against Trump’s first impeachment last year, no longer resisted the Democratic calls for impeachment, instead saying in a statement he will "listen to the legal arguments" for removal when Trump’s trial reaches the Senate.
King's successor, freshman Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport), voted against impeaching Trump, but has said the "president bears some responsibility" for the chaos at the Capitol.
Garbarino on the night of the attack broke ranks with the majority of House GOP members, including Zeldin, and voted to uphold the Electoral College results for President-elect Joe Biden, saying "the role of Congress is not to overturn the election."
Asked about the future of the Republican Party, Garbarino said in a phone interview: "Donald Trump was the leader of the party, and I'm interested to see if he'll stay involved and what his role will be. But just as Mitch McConnell is the Republican leader of the Senate, and Leader [Kevin] McCarthy is the leader of the House, there are other Republicans out there in leadership roles that will focus on rebuilding the party."
In Nassau, where Trump lost to Biden by nearly 70,000 votes, the county’s GOP chairman Joseph Cairo said that while "certainly there are some Trump supporters spread throughout the county who are very die-hard supporters," he does not believe Trump has reshaped the party for the long term.
"This party's been around a long time," Cairo said. "One individual isn't going to change things in the matter of a couple years, or three or four years."
Suffolk GOP chairman Jesse Garcia, asked about the future as Trump leaves office, said: "This party retools, revitalizes and restructures itself after every election cycle."
Trump narrowly defeated Biden by 232 votes in Suffolk.
Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based Republican campaign strategist who worked on the campaign of the late President George H.W. Bush, said, "There was always going to be a recasting and remaking of what this party is and what this party stands for in a post-Trump world. It’s just been accelerated by the attack last week."
"I think if the Republican Party wants to be successful moving forward they’re going to have to get back to those roots of being a much more centrist party, and be more of a party that appeals to a cross section of the American people," Dawidziak said.
Biden, speaking to reporters last Friday, lauded McConnell and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) for speaking out against Trump’s attempts to upend the election results and said he has talked to other congressional Republicans since the attack.
"I think they understand that we need a Republican Party," Biden said. "We need an opposition that’s principled and strong."