Flake, Corker push Trump criticism to new level

Flake, Corker push Trump criticism to new level
© Greg Nash

Two Senate Republicans on Tuesday called on their party to take on President Trump in separate scathing assessments of his public conduct and leadership.

The unprecedented criticism from Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Sasse: RNC help for Roy Moore 'doesn't make any sense' Sasse calls RNC decision to resume support for Moore 'bad' and 'sad' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerFormer Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report McConnell 'almost certain' GOP will pass tax reform Former New Mexico gov: Trump's foreign policy is getting 'criticized by everybody' MORE (R-Tenn.) overshadowed what the White House and GOP leadership hoped would be a day of unity on the party’s biggest agenda item: tax reform.

It also demonstrated the deep fissures Trump and his GOP antagonists are creating within their party, which threaten his agenda and complicate Republican efforts to retain control of the House and Senate in next year’s elections.

Flake shocked Washington by announcing he’d become the second GOP senator to retire at the end of the Congress rather than fight off a Trump-fueled primary challenger. The other retiring senator is Corker, who on Tuesday morning predicted that Trump would be remembered in the history books for “debasing” his country.

ADVERTISEMENT

Flake offered a similar, if more refined, critique of Trump’s effect on his party and the government in an address from the Senate floor, which won applause from more than a dozen senators — including Corker, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.) — at its conclusion.

It also offered a blistering take on Republican acquiescence in the age of Trump, which Flake said represented a compromise in moral authority.

“Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal,” said Flake, who has seen his approval ratings in Arizona plummet after his attacks on Trump.

Despite those poll numbers, Flake said it would be irresponsible to not criticize Trump for his behavior.

Trump’s actions “are not normal,” he said, adding that the president’s “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has been excused.”

Flake said he was “rising today” to say “enough.”

“We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal,” he said. “We have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner.”

Flake also criticized Republicans who believe that “anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect.”

“Silence can equal complicity,” he said.

Earlier in the day, it was Corker’s extraordinary words that made headlines.

Corker, who earlier this fall compared Trump’s White House to an “adult day care center,” said Trump was a liar and a poor role model for children, and he regretted supporting him for president.

“I think at the end of the day, when his term is over, I think the debasing of our nation, the constant non-truth-telling, the name calling … the debasement of our nation will be what he will be remembered most for, and that’s regretful,” Corker told CNN’s Manu Raju.

Corker also stopped short of saying that he trusted the president with the nation’s nuclear codes.

The departure of Flake from the Senate is another blow to the so-called “governing wing” of the Senate Republican caucus, and GOP senators were quick to lament his decision.

“From my perspective the senator from Arizona has been a great team player, always trying to get a constructive outcome no matter what the issue before us,” McConnell said after Flake’s speech.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids Study: ObamaCare bills backed by Collins would lower premiums Right scrambles GOP budget strategy MORE (R-Maine), a moderate who flirted with running for governor next year, noted Flake gave her a heads-up of his decision over text.

“I’m truly so disappointed in his decision. ... He is a leader of great intelligence and the utmost integrity and the Senate will be a lesser place without his serving,” she told reporters.

Most GOP senators have avoided taking on Trump — and some fear repercussions from the president’s political machine. Former White House strategist Stephen Bannon has promised to field primary challengers against nearly every GOP Senate incumbent.

In deciding to retire, Flake joins Corker in being a bit of a free agent in the Senate. The two are also joined by other Republicans who the White House can’t really depend upon on every issue, including McCain, Collins and Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments GOP on verge of opening Arctic refuge to drilling MORE (Alaska), who all voted “no” on a critical health-care vote over the summer.

Still, the White House appeared to relish Tuesday’s battles even though the president’s visit to Capitol Hill was supposed to be aimed at promoting party unity.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, argued that Flake and Corker “were not likely to be reelected.”

Trump, who rarely lets any criticism go unanswered, ripped into Corker on Tuesday morning after the senator criticized him during an interview on “The Today Show.”

He said Corker was a “lightweight” who couldn’t get reelected in Tennessee as a “dog catcher.”

GOP senators publicly urged the two men to remain focused on what unites the party: tax reform. With a 52-seat majority, leadership can only afford to lose two Republicans and still have Vice President Pence break a tie if Democrats are unified against their bill.

“I’m not going to get into the middle of that,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Air Force makes criminal reporting changes after Texas massacre We need a better pathway for allowing civilians to move guns across state lines MORE (R-Texas) told reporters when asked about the back-and-forth. “We need to stay focused on the task ahead.”

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids Dems push for more money for opioid fight MORE (R-S.D.) added, “They both ought to dial it down.”

The Corker-Trump feud didn’t come up during the GOP lunch, according to multiple senators. 

But it almost immediately created headaches for McConnell and his leadership team, who emerged from the closed-door meeting eager to talk about GOP unity and instead faced questions about the rhetorical battling.   

“Look, I don’t have any observation about that,” McConnell said in response to one of several questions about Trump’s criticism of Corker and other senators. “We’re going to concentrate on what our agenda is and not any of these other distractions that you all may be interested in.”