When President Trump issued his travel ban a few days into his presidency, at least eight Senate Republicans opposed it. When he fired his FBI director in May, more than a dozen Senate Republicans openly questioned it. When Trump prodded senators to vote for an Obamacare repeal bill, three of them didn't. When Trump urged Republicans to try again or risk being labeled failures, they ignored him. When Trump started attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week, a handful of them went out of their way to publicly back McConnell.
And with Charlottesville on its knees this weekend as protests led by white supremacists turned deadly, Senate Republicans had their most overt conflict with the president yet.
A number of Senate Republicans criticized nothing less than the way Trump chose to be president Saturday. They publicly and directly condemned his words and actions. More specifically, they criticized his lack of words and actions to clearly and forcefully denounce the white supremacy roiling Charlottesville's streets and seizing the nation's attention.
We should call evil by its name. My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home. -OGH
— Senator Hatch Office (@senorrinhatch) August 12, 2017
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 12, 2017
Mr. President - we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism. https://t.co/PaPNiPPAoW
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) August 12, 2017
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) August 13, 2017
— FoxNewsSunday (@FoxNewsSunday) August 13, 2017
What " WhiteNatjonalist" are doing in Charlottesville is homegrown terrorism that can't be tolerated anymore that what Any extremist does
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) August 12, 2017
“White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people and make our nation special,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.
There's no nuance in those statements, no need to read between the lines. These Republicans think the president did a bad job being president in the midst of a violent, fraught crisis. Their criticism carries extra heft when you consider that these lawmakers mostly weren't prodded by reporters, microphones thrust in their faces, to say any of this. Congress is on break, so wherever in the world these lawmakers were, they made the proactive decision Saturday to go on Twitter — or call up their staff to write a statement — and criticize the president.
This moment has echoes of the release of the crude “Access Hollywood” tape in the last month of the 2016 presidential campaign. These senators would probably rather not get into it with the leader of their party, but they feel as if he has done something so egregious that they have no choice but to speak out.
Making their criticism of Trump even more notable: Just a few days ago came a tangible warning of the consequences that criticizing Trump can bring. After Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote a book declaring that his party is in denial about Trump, a pro-Trump donor wrote one of the senator's primary challengers a $300,000 check.
Not everyone who spoke out Saturday has as much on the line as Flake. Most aren't even up for reelection in 2018. (Though Gardner is the chairman of Senate Republicans' reelection committee.)
And liberals shouldn't get their hopes up that this means Republicans are suddenly on the impeachment path. But the past few months, and especially this weekend, make clear that Republicans in Congress are increasingly comfortable confronting their president in more direct ways.