Distancing from Trump? Some Republicans step up critiques

WASHINGTON (AP) — For more than three years, President Donald Trump instilled such fear in the Republican Party's leaders that most kept criticism of his turbulent leadership or inconsistent politics to themselves.

That's beginning to change.

Four months before voters decide the Republican president's reelection, some in Trump's party are daring to say the quiet part out loud as Trump struggles to navigate competing national crises and a scattershot campaign message.

“He is losing,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump friend and confidant, said Sunday of Trump’s reelection prospects on ABC’s This Week. “And if he doesn’t change course, both in terms of the substance of what he’s discussing and the way that he approaches the American people, then he will lose.”

Beyond politics, Trump's allies — even some in his own administration — are distancing themselves from his policies.

While Trump avoids wearing a mask in public, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “We must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes.” Vice President Mike Pence was pictured this weekend wearing a mask and urged other Americans to do the same. And Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, tweeted a picture of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a mask with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks.

At the same time, Trump has been criticized by some Republicans for inconsistent leadership during the sweeping national protests against police brutality. On Sunday, the president tweeted and subsequently deleted a video in which a supporter used the white supremacist mantra “White power.”

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the GOP’s sole Black senator, called Trump’s decision to share the video “indefensible.”

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President Donald Trump in 2020
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President Donald Trump in 2020
US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One prior to departure from Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin, June 25, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he walks on the South Lawn after arriving on Marine One at the White House, Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Washington. Trump is returning from Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump walks to board Air Force One prior to departure from Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin, June 25, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn after arriving on Marine One at the White House, Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Washington. Trump is returning from Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 16: President Donald J. Trump signs an executive order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities in the Rose Garden at the White House on Tuesday, June 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump gestures following a tour of Fincantieri Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wisconsin, June 25, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
MARINETTE, WISCONSIN - JUNE 25: US President Donald Trump speaks to workers during a visit to the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard on June 25, 2020 in Marinette, Wisconsin. The company was recently awarded a $5.5 billion contract to build ships for the U.S. Navy. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
TULSA, USA - JUNE 20: U.S. President Donald Trump meet his supporters at his ''Make America Great Again'' rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States on June 20, 2020. (Photo by Kyle Mazza/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
TULSA, OK - JUNE 20: President Donald J. Trump speaks during a "Make America Great Again!" rally at the BOK Center on Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, OK. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 16: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for an event in the Rose Garden on “Safe Policing for Safe Communities”, at the White House June 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump signed an executive order on police reform amid the growing calls after the death of George Floyd. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 16: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as members of law enforcement look on during an event in the Rose Garden on “Safe Policing for Safe Communities”, at the White House June 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump signed an executive order on police reform amid the growing calls after the death of George Floyd. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, June 16, 2020. (Photo by Saul LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 16: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden on “Safe Policing for Safe Communities”, at the White House June 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump will sign an executive order on police reform amid the growing calls after the death of George Floyd. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 15: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable on “Fighting for America’s Seniors” at the Cabinet Room of the White House June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump participated in the roundtable to discuss the administration’s efforts to “safeguard America’s senior citizens” from COVID-19. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 15: U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a roundtable on “Fighting for America’s Seniors” at the Cabinet Room of the White House June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump participated in the roundtable to discuss the administration’s efforts to “safeguard America’s senior citizens” from COVID-19. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 15: U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a roundtable on “Fighting for America’s Seniors” at the Cabinet Room of the White House June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump participated in the roundtable to discuss the administration’s efforts to “safeguard America’s senior citizens” from COVID-19. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable meeting on seniors in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, June 15, 2020. - President Donald Trump holds a roundtable discussion with senior citizens called Fighting for Americas Seniors on Monday. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable meeting on seniors in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, June 15, 2020. - President Donald Trump holds a roundtable discussion with senior citizens called Fighting for Americas Seniors on Monday. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump listens during a roundtable meeting on seniors in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, June 15, 2020. - President Donald Trump holds a roundtable discussion with senior citizens called Fighting for Americas Seniors on Monday. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks during an event on police reform, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable about America's seniors, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump listens during a roundtable about America's seniors, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Monday, June 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Sunday, June 14, 2020, after stepping off Marine One as he returns from his golf club in New Jersey. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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Make no mistake, Trump still has a tight grip on the party. And the intensifying concerns are remarkably similar to those that emerged in 2016, when Trump overcame glaring personal and political liabilities to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. The splits signal that Republicans are aware of the president's weak political standing and may feel increasingly free to break from him as voting nears.

While Election Day isn’t until Nov. 3, early voting in a handful of key states, including the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Virginia, begins in mid-September.

Trump has come to accept that he is currently trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden following a series of phone calls and polling presentations with advisers, according to four campaign officials and Republicans close to the campaign who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss private conversations. He has responded with a mix of disbelief and anger, including frequent frustration that the pandemic robbed him of a strong economy and drowned out the attacks he hoped to land against Biden, according to the officials.

The president's popularity with the party base remains strong. But in an implicit acknowledgement of GOP anxiety, Trump's deputy campaign manager Bill Stepien released a memo Sunday evening questioning polling data that gives Biden an advantage, while pointing to voter participation numbers in recent primaries suggesting Trump's supporters are excited.

“Clearly, Democrats have not rallied around their flawed candidate,” Stepien wrote. “Today there can be no debate that President Trump has a decided advantage in base enthusiasm and can be most confident that his supporters will turn out.”

Biden pollster John Anzalone laughed at the argument.

“You know a candidate is in trouble when their only argument for reelection is the enthusiasm of their dwindling pool of supporters, which is now barely over 40%,” he said.

One factor driving recent concerns has been Trump’s inability to articulate an agenda or a clear message for his second term. After a first term defined almost exclusively by his desire to undo former President Barack Obama's accomplishments, Trump has failed to offer a single future policy priority of his own during multiple recent interviews.

Jerry Falwell Jr., a Trump confidant and the president of Liberty University, conceded that the president has not been clear enough about his plans.

“I do think he needs to talk more about what he’s going to do in the next four years versus taking credit for what he’s already done,” Falwell said in an interview, even as he predicted Trump's political standing would improve once voters see Biden on the debate stage this fall.

"Whatever hesitance they might have about Donald Trump is going to turn into fear about Joe Biden’s ability to confidently do the job,” he said.

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Joe Biden at the CNN debates
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Joe Biden at the CNN debates
Former Vice President Joe Biden participates in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Democratic presidential hopeful Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) looks onv as US Senator from California Kamala Harris speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) (L) raises his hand while former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker (L) and Former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Former Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden and US Senator from California Kamala Harris speak during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Former US Vice President Joe Biden is seen on a TV screen during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) and US Senator from California Kamala Harris chat during a break in the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker (L) and Former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden (R) and US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker chat during a break in the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden (R) and US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker chat during a break in the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Former Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) (R) speaks while former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden and US Senator from California Kamala Harris speak during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (L) speaks while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) listens during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden looks down during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden and US Senator from California Kamala Harris speak during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls former Vice President Joe Biden and US Senator from California Kamala Harris speak during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden blows a kiss ahead of the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator from California Kamala Harris (R) looks on as Former Vice President Joe Biden blows a kiss ahead of the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) (L-R), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. (D-CA) take the stage at the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31: Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) greet each other at the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 31: Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) greet each other at the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks on the second night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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For now, however, aides privately worry about Trump’s increasingly scattershot approach to the campaign. Many hoped that his comeback rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, earlier in the month would spark new momentum, when it instead raised questions about his supporters' enthusiasm and his management of the pandemic.

The officials close to the campaign report that Trump was ecstatic about the raucous crowd he drew to Phoenix a few days later, but the positive development was quickly overshadowed by the resurgence of the virus. COVID-19 infections have exploded across several states, including Arizona, forcing some governors to scale back reopening plans.

Trump’s campaign has also continued to struggle with its attempts to define and attack Biden, as broadsides over China and his son's work overseas have failed to land. Trump himself has begun wondering if his pet nickname for Biden, “Sleepy Joe,” remains effective. Over the weekend, he tested out a new one: “Corrupt Joe.”

Meanwhile, Trump aides at all levels have begun to accept the potential that their time in the White House may be short-lived.

Where six months ago, they plotted their promotion path within government, some are beginning to draw up plans to return to the private sector. To be sure, Trump’s White House has set records for turnover, but efforts to prepare for life after the administration have been taken up in earnest in some corners of the White House complex.

Democrats, meanwhile, are working to avoid overconfidence.

“We’re being really cautious,” Anzalone said, "although we know there's something going on.”

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