President Trump on Tuesday endured one of the most searing rebukes of a chief executive by members of his own party in modern history, with one Republican senator accusing him of “debasing” the nation and another declaring he would rather retire than be “complicit” in the “compromise of our moral authority.”
Senate Republicans had hoped a Tuesday lunch with Trump would showcase GOP unity as they push for tax cuts. But the meeting was largely lost amid Trump’s remarkable war of words with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the announcement by Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake that he would not run for reelection because he refuses to accommodate the “new normal” of the president’s behavior.
The successive attacks, one before senators even sat down for lunch and the other afterward, showed once again how the president’s unpredictable outbursts and willingness to belittle his allies not only distracts from the administration’s policy agenda, but also threatens to undercut Trump’s image at home and abroad.
“The debasement of our nation will be what he’ll be remembered most for, and that’s regretful,” Corker told CNN.
Flake lamented the “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behavior emanating from the “top of our government.”
Presidents have never been immune to criticism from their own party in Congress. But the stinging words from Flake and Corker ricocheted even in a Washington that has grown accustomed to escalating spats since Trump took office.
“This is different in the type of very fierce and pointed personal language [Corker] is using — calling him a liar and child — and the way, via Twitter and cable — this carried out on a national stage instantly,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public policy who writes extensively about Congress and the White House.
Corker, once considered to be Trump’s secretary of State, questioned the president’s honesty and expressed regret for supporting his candidacy, saying he would never do so again.
Flake, who was facing a tough reelection and a primary challenger backed by Trump’s former advisor Stephen K. Bannon, took to the Senate floor and said, “I rise today to say: enough.”
His commitment to American values, he said, overrode his party loyalty.
“The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined, and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters — the notion that we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided,” Flake said. “We must stop pretending.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed the senators’ criticisms, calling them “petty comments” from men who were “not likely to get reelected.” Corker has also announced he will not run for reelection.
But the political fallout could do lasting damage to the uneasy relationship between the president and GOP-led Congress, one that has never quite settled into dependable partnership.
The day started, as it often does, with a presidential tweet. Apparently miffed by Corker’s dismissal, during a morning TV show interview, of Trump’s Senate lunch as a “photo op,” Trump lashed out at his onetime ally, who has since become one of the president’s most outspoken critics.
Trump tweeted that Corker “couldn’t get elected dog catcher,” and repeated a claim, disputed by Corker, that the senator begged for his endorsement before Corker announced he would not seek reelection. Corker says that, in fact, the opposite is true and that Trump promised his support in multiple conversations.
“Same untruths from an utterly untruthful president,” Corker shot back, renewing his taunt that Trump required adult supervision, “#AlertTheDaycareStaff.”
But it didn’t end there. Corker, in a hallway interview back in the Senate, unleashed some of his darkest concerns about Trump’s presidency.
Corker said he has tried to work with Trump, in private talks and counsel, but could go no further. "I think that he's proven himself unable to rise to the occasion,” Corker told CNN. He said “world leaders are very aware that much of what he says is untrue.”
The Corker-Trump exchange did not continue at the lunch, senators said, calling the gathering a notably upbeat and policy-oriented discussion, without any of the fireworks of past meetings. Flake did not attend.
Trump received several standing ovations from the senators, they said. After the lunch, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to answer questions about the issues Corker raised or dissent within the party.
“We’re all on the same page," McConnell told reporters. "We intend to achieve what we set out to achieve."
Other senators, though, were shaken by the turn of events.
“I’m extraordinarily disappointed,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a centrist who recently declined to run for governor and instead stay in the Senate, said of Flake’s announcement. “I’ve never hesitated to express my views, and I won’t going forward.”
With a slim 52-seat majority in the Senate, Republicans have little margin for dissent, as seen with the collapse of their Obamacare repeal last month. They are wary of a similar result on the tax overhaul. Although Corker and Flake are reliable conservatives who are expected to serve until their terms finish in January 2019, Trump’s continued attacks on senators who criticize him could embolden dissenters into a new coalition.
Republican Sen. John McCain, whose opposition helped torpedo the healthcare bill, sat at his desk, as did more than a dozen other senators, during Flake’s speech, and then embraced his fellow Arizonan with a hug.
“Everybody comes to their own conclusions,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican, said about Flake’s decision. “But I think the rest of us here are focused on trying to get this agenda across the finish line.”
Trump has a mixed record from his forays to Capitol Hill. His visit to House Republicans during the healthcare debate failed to inspire passage on their initial attempts at an Obamacare overhaul. When he invited senators to lunch at the White House, he not so lightly threatened those who dared oppose him on healthcare with their jobs.
Trump was invited to Tuesday’s lunch by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a member of Senate leadership, who also faces a potential Bannon-backed primary challenge, as Trump’s former advisor tries to rid the Senate of Republicans he views as disloyal to the president.
Although the tax plan remains the top priority for Congress, it is not the only agenda item for senators. They are wrestling with fallout from the military deaths in Niger and what to do with rising healthcare costs after Trump’s decision to eliminate some federal subsidy payments.
The party’s hope is that on tax cuts, most Republicans agree that passage of Trump’s plan to overhaul the tax code would be a welcome — and overdue — accomplishment after having failed to achieve much else from their agenda this year.
By Tuesday evening, Trump toned down — for now — his rhetoric. “So nice being with Republican Senators today,” the president tweeted. “Multiple standing ovations! Most are great people who want big Tax Cuts and success for U.S."