You might think that as an opponent of President Trump — a #NeverTrump conservative, as they say — I’d feel heartened, if not vindicated, to see Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) laying into Trump the way they did Tuesday. Corker said Trump was “an utterly untruthful president” and Flake blasted the president for his “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior.” But, not so fast.
Flake always opposed Trump, and he can say that he finally decided to issue the full-throated denunciation Trump had coming. Corker? His late awakening shouldn’t win him any points.
Flake never endorsed Trump’s candidacy, has spoken about the president’s deficiencies and wrote a book that was, as much as anything, a rebuke of Trump-style politics. That has alienated him from many GOP voters in Arizona, contributing to his decision not to stand for reelection.
Corker is a different story altogether, deserving neither praise nor sympathy. He helped facilitate Trump’s march to the Oval Office, and has only recently grown squeamish over the president’s antics. But why now? After all, Trump is doing exactly what we never-Trumpers warned he would do — and what Trump himself telegraphed that he’d do. For onetime Trump backers like Corker to suddenly act surprised and dismayed by the president’s bad behavior reeks of hypocrisy.
Corker’s attack on Trump began around the time he decided not to run for reelection. In an interview with the New York Times earlier this month, he said Trump was treating the job of president like a “reality show,” and that he would put us “on the path to World War III.” On Twitter, Corker called the White House an “adult day care,” because staff have to keep Trump from doing something stupid.
Deep down, maybe that’s how he’s always felt. But that’s not how he’s always acted in public. When Trump started winning primaries last year, Republican leaders, including Corker, started sidling up to him. He refused to endorse anybody in the closely fought Tennessee Republican primary on Super Tuesday (although his governor, Bill Haslam, endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio). Trump won, and shortly thereafter, Corker chastised “Republican Party leaders” for “trying to stifle” the “voice” of enthusiastic Trump supporters. A few months later, Corker said anti-Trump conservatives needed “just to chill,” anticipating that as the president “evolves,” he could help the then-presumptive nominee build a stronger policy portfolio. He was rumored to be on Trump’s list of possible vice-presidential nominees and later rumored to be on the short list for secretary of state.
The Post’s Jennifer Rubin, another unflappable never-Trumper, interprets Corker’s turn against Trump as a gutsy example of speaking truth to power. “Corker’s frankness,” she writes, “should serve as a constant warning and prod to his colleagues.” Alas, I cannot get over the suspicion that his is a conversion born of pure convenience. It’s likely Corker either knew Trump was unfit for office all along, and sailed along with the political winds until deciding not to run for reelection, or he’s an utterly incompetent judge of character, unable to see what was always there.
There’s no way to be sure which one it is, but The Week’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry seemed to be onto something when he wrote, “There has been a very strong correlation between Bob Corker’s public comments on Donald Trump and Bob Corker’s perceived short-term interests.”
Trump is no worse now than he was a year ago, when the Access Hollywood tape came out, or two years ago, when he suggested that the United States institute a Muslim ban. He has always been combative, boorish, ignorant and mean-spirited. He’s flip-flopped on every issue from health care to abortion to the Iraq War. He perfected the art of the Twitter insult long before he was considered a serious candidate for the presidency. There is certainly nothing new we have learned about Trump in the last couple of months. Indeed, all of his faults were on full display from the moment he announced his candidacy in June 2015.
Asked Tuesday whether he’d support Trump if he had it to do all over again, Corker said, “I would not do it again.” Sorry, senator, you missed your chance to do the right thing last year.
It’s one thing to debate the various aspects of Trump’s agenda, such as it is. It’s another thing entirely to look the other way all through 2016, and then, in 2017, be offended by Trump’s crudeness or worried that he is irresponsible. #NeverTrump conservatives (and yes, Democrats) were sounding alarms about the dangers of Trumpism all last year. Corker told us to shut up.
Trump is a symptom of the rot in conservative politics: Too many Republican thought leaders have behaved cynically for too long, and too many GOP voters haven’t done their due diligence. If conservatives ever hope to clean up the party we claim, and turn it into a vehicle for positive governance, we have to reckon with these tough facts. And we have to hold people like Corker accountable. He had a chance to oppose Trump when it mattered. Instead, he chose to be a booster. He’s not a clear-eyed truth teller and he’s not the antidote to Trump. He’s how we got here to begin with.