Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump

Criticism of President Trump from former Defense Secretary James Mattis and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is ratcheting up pressure on other Republicans to push back on the president’s handling of nationwide civil unrest.

Mattis, who is as close as anyone to being universally respected on Capitol Hill, called out Trump on Wednesday for what he called the president’s lack of a “mature leadership” and accused him for intentionally trying to divide the nation.

Murkowski said she thought Mattis’s words were “true and honest and necessary and overdue” and suggested that it might embolden other Republicans who privately disagree with the president’s often controversial tone and conduct to speak out.

“When I saw Gen. Mattis’s comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns we might hold internally and have the courage of our convictions to speak up,” she said.

Murkowski also admitted to “struggling” to decide whether to support Trump’s reelection even though she pledged to “continue to work with him” and “continue to work with this administration.”

The statement, made to reporters shortly before a noontime vote, exploded like a bombshell in the Senate and immediately became the top story of the day.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent critic of the president who voted for his impeachment, wouldn’t go so far as to comment on Mattis’s statement when asked about it by reporters and instead praised the former general as “a person of extraordinary integrity and sacrifice” and “a patriot who has sound judgment and capacity.”

After Murkowski’s endorsement of Mattis’s critique became headline news, Romney told reporters that his “letter was stunning and powerful.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has sought to keep his focus on legislation and not get caught up in Trump’s controversies, on Thursday as he was leaving the Capitol stepped up his criticism of the president’s tone in recent days.

“I think the president has done a pretty good job on his prepared remarks because he has condemned what happened,” Portman told reporters. “He has applauded the peaceful demonstrations, his prepared remarks, and he has condemned the violence.

“But [it’s] his tone and words kind of in between those more formal presentations that have not unified people,” he said.

Asked whether the president should shift his tone, he said, “Yeah, I do.” 

“I think he’s probably getting that message from a lot of people,” he added.

The criticisms come amid polls showing Trump losing to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in battleground states. Republicans in the Senate are worried that Trump could take their Senate majority with him if he does not begin to rebound.

Other Republicans on Thursday also faced questions on Mattis’s statement and some took what appeared to be evasive action to dodge reporters.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who earlier in the week said that Trump’s tweets warning that looters would be shot and “vicious dogs” could be unleashed on protesters were “not helpful,” managed to elude reporters who were frantically searching for him all day long.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who on Tuesday criticized Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church after peaceful protesters were forcibly removed, was also asked to weigh in on Mattis.

The Maine senator, who has a tough reelection race, demurred by saying she hadn’t yet read Mattis’s statement but explained she had it and planned to examine it later. She did, however, declare she had “great respect” for Mattis.

When reporters looked for Collins after the final vote of the week to see if she had anything else to say about the former Defense secretary’s pointed criticism of Trump, the senator seemed to vanish from the Capitol. She managed to find a way back to her office without bumping into any of the half a dozen or so reporters looking for her.

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science and a longtime observer of the Senate who in the past advised Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and served as a scholar in residence in the office of former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Murkowski’s statement Thursday may become a defining moment.

Baker compared Murkowski’s remarks to Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s (Maine) famous declaration of conscience almost exactly 70 years ago denouncing Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.).

Chase Smith on June 1, 1950, delivered a landmark speech on the Senate floor denouncing McCarthy’s tactics of accusing political opponents of communist subversion.

She famously defended every American’s right to speak and protest and urged her fellow Republicans not to rely on what she called the “Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

“Politicians crave cover, political power. And Gen. Mattis gave cover to Murkowski and the combination of Mattis and Murkowski ought to be abundant cover for other Republicans who grouse quietly about Donald Trump to come out from the shadows and be much more plainspoken about their objections to him,” Baker said.

Baker said Republicans are leery of crossing Trump because “his base is their voters” and “they are painfully aware of that.”

A few hours after Murkowski delivered praised for Mattis’s rebuke, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced he would put a hold on two of the president’s nominees.

Grassley said he would hold up Trump’s picks to head the National Counterterrorism Center and serve as undersecretary for arms control and international security until he got a better explanation from the White House as to why the president fired two inspectors general, Steve Linick and Michael Atkinson, the watchdogs of the State Department and intelligence community, respectively.

When Trump fired Linick, who was investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for possibly using a staffer to run personal errands as well as the administration’s controversial arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Senate Republicans said he owed Congress a detailed explanation under the 2008 Inspector General Reform Act. But the White House largely ignored those requests with little repercussions until Grassley announced his hold Thursday afternoon. 

Al Felzenberg, a former Republican aide and a presidential historian who lectured for more than a decade at the University of Pennsylvania, said Murkowski’s statement is “the first time I’ve seen an independently elected Republican official go this far with the president.”

He said “other people may join her” and expressed puzzlement over why Romney, who voted to remove the president from office, hasn’t been more outspoken in criticizing Trump’s recent handling of the nationwide protests.

Felzenberg also asked why retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is seen as an honest broker in the Senate, or other retiring Republicans haven’t spoken out against Trump’s controversial statements and actions of the past week.

Alexander, when asked Thursday afternoon to comment on Mattis’s critique, said “I was in a hearing all day and I haven’t had a chance to read his letter, which I’m going to do.” 


Tags Chuck Grassley Chuck Hagel Donald Trump George Floyd protests Harry Reid James Mattis Joe Biden John Thune Lamar Alexander Lisa Murkowski Mike Pompeo Mitt Romney Patrick Leahy Rob Portman senate elections Susan Collins

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