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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 FlakeFive reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain Former GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerFox News inks contributor deal with former Democratic House member Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain Roy Blunt won't run for Senate seat in 2022 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.

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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 McCainCindy McCain rejects idea of running for office: 'I've been there' Bush says he doesn't criticize other presidents to avoid risking friendship with Michelle Obama 'Real Housewives of the GOP' — Wannabe reality show narcissists commandeer the party MORE (R-Ariz.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhen it comes to Georgia's voting law, keep politics out of business Pelosi to offer even split on 9/11-style commission to probe Capitol riot Senate GOP crafts outlines for infrastructure counter proposal 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 CollinsSenate locks in hate crimes deal, setting up Thursday passage Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban 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 MurkowskiHarris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge Senate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban 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 CornynCornyn, Sinema to introduce bill aimed at addressing border surge Bipartisan group of senators holds immigration talks amid border surge House votes to extend ban on fentanyl-like substances 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 ThuneSenate GOP keeps symbolic earmark ban Senate GOP crafts outlines for infrastructure counter proposal On The Money: Senate GOP faces post-Trump spending brawl | Senate confirms SEC chief Gensler to full five-year term | Left-leaning group raises concerns about SALT cap repeal 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.”