Raw Republican divisions burst out into the open more dramatically than ever before on Tuesday — and now GOP insiders are bracing for what comes next.
An extraordinary day in Washington began with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) accusing President Trump of “debasing” the nation.
Hours later, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) announced he would retire from the Senate rather than seek reelection. Flake said that “some in our executive branch” — it was not hard to guess whom he had in mind — were engaging in conduct that was “reckless, outrageous and undignified.”
The day’s events, unimaginable under any other recent president, left Republicans shell-shocked.Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said there was “no question” that “what Jeff Flake said publicly and what Bob Corker said publicly is the same thing that so many senators and members of Congress and staff at the RNC and staff in the administration say privately.”
“So, that’s a problem,” Heye added wryly.
There are no signs that the problem will be resolved anytime soon.
President Trump, who has a lifelong habit of leaving no slight unanswered, is not going to turn the other cheek now. In a series of tweets on Tuesday morning, he called Corker “incompetent” and a “lightweight.”
“I just think it feels like it is Trump’s side hobby to get into fights,” said one frustrated GOP strategist with ties to the White House. But, this source added, “I think actually Corker is picking the fight here and Trump is responding. There are a lot of Republicans who also wish Corker would shut up.”
Influential people who share Trump’s combative, populist style are in no mood to make nice with the GOP establishment as represented by Corker and Flake.
Shortly after Flake announced his intention to retire, reporters for both NBC News and ABC News attributed the triumphant response “another day, another scalp” to a “source close to Steve Bannon,” the Breitbart News chief and the president’s pugnacious former chief strategist.
Democrats can hardly contain their glee at the disarray in Republican ranks.
After Trump attended a GOP Senate luncheon, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters, “President Trump put his phone down for an hour.”
Schumer then repurposed one of Corker’s anti-Trump barbs — that the president has a propensity for “untruths” — to mount his own critique of the Republicans’ plans on tax reform.
Some in the GOP hold out hope that the debate over tax reform could provide at least a temporary glue to hold the fractious strands of the party together.
The specifics of the tax plan are not expected to be released until next week at the earliest. But Republicans have an incentive to make progress: They know that they badly need a solid legislative accomplishment heading into next year’s midterm elections.
Tax reform, GOP leaders believe, should be an easier cause to rally around than the attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which ended in ignominious failure.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters at the Capitol after the lunch with Trump, “If there is anything that unites Republicans, it is tax reform.”
McConnell also insisted that he would not get sidetracked by “noise” and “other distractions that [the media] might be interested in.”
But that will be easier said than done.
Even if tax reform does happen — and that outcome is far from guaranteed — it is difficult to see how it will decontaminate an atmosphere that has grown deeply toxic.
In a stunning series of interviews on Tuesday, Corker — who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee— asserted that world leaders did not trust Trump because they know “that much of what he says is untrue,” that he regrets giving Trump his backing last year and that Trump did not even “aspire to … act like a president of the United States.”
Flake, on the Senate floor, lamented “flagrant disregard for truth and decency.” Later, asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper if he believed Trump was setting a “bad example for the nation’s children,” Flake replied, “Yes.”
Firing back during the White House media briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Corker and Flake were both being “petty.” Sanders also said that Flake’s decision to retire was “probably a good move” given the “lack of support he has from the people of Arizona.”
Flake’s home-state approval rating had fallen as low as 18 percent in one poll this summer, and he faced a serious primary challenge from a much more Trump-friendly former state senator, Kelli Ward.
Some see Flake’s retirement as evidence of a move to the right by the party that could ultimately see it lose Senate seats if it nominates candidates with limited appeal in a general election.
Heye, the former RNC communications director, recalled the battles earlier this decade when nominees such as Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Missouri’s Todd Akin and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell all came up short in winnable contests.
Both then and now, Heye said, the GOP risked “being split into two parts, if not more, where one part accuses the other of ‘not doing enough’ — whether or not that side has an actual plan for real victory.”
But Flake’s retirement could also be seen as the inevitable consequence of bucking Trump when the president remains popular with the party’s grass roots.
None of the most prominent Trump critics of recent weeks — Flake, Corker, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former President George W. Bush — will face a competitive election campaign anytime soon. Republicans who will be on the ballot next year are keeping their misgivings to themselves.
For now, some Republican insiders are trying to keep an even keel amid stormy waters — even if it takes some black humor to do so.
At one point on Monday, Trump said that Corker “couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Tennessee.”
Asked for his reaction to the feud between the two men, veteran strategist Charlie Black said of Corker, “I’m going to pay his filing fee for dogcatcher — and place some pretty big bets that he will win.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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