Ongoing turmoil marks President Donald Trump’s first year in office — including in his own Republican party, where presidential tweetstorms, inflammatory rhetoric, and high-profile dissent have fueled open conflict.
In FRONTLINE: Trump’s Takeover, airing Tuesday, April 10 at 9 p.m., on KUED 7, FRONTLINE’s political team tells the inside story of a president who vowed to take down the Washington establishment, and who has fought an intense war for control of the GOP.
“Our in-depth look at this contest, waged over the first year of Trump’s presidency, is a window into the potential lasting impact of the Trump era on the Republican Party and the American political system as a whole,” says FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk (Putin’s Revenge, Divided Stats of America, The Choice) .
Gripping and revealing, the documentary tells the story of Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party — from the perspective of Republican lawmakers and insiders themselves.
“Somebody needs to stand up and say, ‘This is not our party. [It] is not behavior that we should condone. We shouldn’t be okay with this. This is not normal,’” says Senator Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the few legislators in his party to proclaim this point of view so publicly. His comments come in a far-ranging interview on everything from his first, highly combative meeting with Trump, to his decision to join the record number of Republicans who have announced they will not seek re-election after their current terms end.
“What the Republican establishment now know is Donald Trump is unequivocally the leader of the Republican Party,” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski tells FRONTLINE. “He is the one who sets the tone of what takes place in Washington. He is the leader of our country, both politically and from a legislative side of things, and I think they’ve learned that over the last year.”
Through interviews with longtime Republican legislators, House Freedom Caucus members, senior White House officials, Trump confidantes, authors and journalists, Trump’s Takeover examines how hopes for unified Republican control in Washington were challenged by divisions inside the party. It explores how Trump has fought for control of the GOP and is remaking it in his own image, publicly attacking those like Flake who defy him.
“He is a non-politician who came to Washington owing no one anything,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, tells FRONTLINE. “He beat the establishment of two parties. Not just one, but two.”
Trump’s Takeover examines the president’s unorthodox governing style, showing how after taking office, he displayed a lack of interest in the ins and outs of legislation and policy — and instead took to Twitter, attacking opponents. The film goes behind closed doors in the negotiations to repeal and replace Obamacare — Trump’s first major legislative test — revealing through accounts of people who were there how little Trump seemed to understand or care about the details of the bill.
“The president was not particularly engaged in the policy details. That was pretty apparent,” says Representative Charlie Dent. “The president seemed to defer to Congress, largely, and basically, ‘Whatever you guys pass, I’ll sign.’”
From Trump’s belittlement of party leaders when the bill died, to a split over what many in the party said was the president’s inadequate response to deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, to when Congress ultimately delivered a major legislative victory for Trump with the passage of tax reform, Trump’s Takeover is a compelling, must-watch look at Trump’s relationship with the GOP in his first year as president — and its potential implications.
“The Republican party has been thoroughly Trumpified, and they’re bowing the knee to him,” conservative author Charlie Sykes says. “Now, in a Faustian bargain, remember, you often get what you want… But then you find out that the price is way more than you were expecting.”
The following week, on Tuesday, April 17 at 9 p.m., FRONTLINE continues the story of the Republican Party’s evolution with McCain — an exploration of Senator John McCain’s complicated relationship with President Trump and the Republican Party, as well as his life and politics.
“No one knows the workings of the modern Republican Party like John McCain,” says Kirk, who with his team has been reporting on McCain for years. “In McCain, we’ll chronicle how President Trump came to see him as a foe, and examine how the Republican Party has evolved across his political lifetime.”
Drawing on both new interviews and FRONTLINE’s deep archive of reporting, McCain traces the conservative standard-bearer’s motivations and his political history — from his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, to speaking out against torture during the Bush administration, to his dramatic vote against the GOP’s health care bill last year.
But the film also examines how, with his 2008 nomination of Sarah Palin as a running mate, McCain himself contributed to a growing challenge to the party establishment: “That was really the first time that you had this establishment versus grassroots conflict,” says Republican pollster Frank Luntz.