Boehner’s message appears to be twofold, with an implicit criticism directed at his former colleagues: That President Trump has taken over the Republican Party, and that Republicans are letting him do it.
But the accusation Boehner is lodging raises a question that’s at the heart of the Republican Party’s future: Is it possible to oppose Trump and stay influential enough to keep your job? Evidence suggests not.
Of the three most vociferous GOP critics of Trump right now in the Senate, two aren’t running for reelection. One, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), is retiring specifically because vocalizing his concerns about Trump made him unelectable in a Republican primary.
“The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I'm not willing to take, and that I can't in good conscience take,” he said as he announced his retirement in the fall.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the next Trump critic on our GOP Senate list, compared the president to a toddler, accused him of “debasing the nation” and asked if he was stable enough to govern.
Corker saw his popularity in Tennessee turn upside down after that. He’s not running for reelection, and despite having made up with Trump, Corker got booed when Trump mentioned his name on stage at a Nashville rally this week. This happened in Corker’s own state.
The third GOP Senate critic, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), hasn’t been in Washington this year as he battles brain cancer, and it’s not clear how much longer he’ll remain in office.
But with little to no sensitivity for McCain’s health, Trump finds a way to bash McCain nearly every time he is in front of a microphone and his supporters. The White House also hasn't apologized for one of its aides brushing off McCain's opposition to a Trump nominee by saying McCain is “dying anyway.”
There is at least one GOP never-Trumper attempting to leverage his anti-Trump creds to run for office. But he’s not counting on Republicans to do it: Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer and registered Republican in the George W. Bush administration, is running for Senate in Minnesota as a Democrat.
Meanwhile, Trump’s other critics have largely fallen in line with the president. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) for a time consistently called out the president’s controversial decisions.
Graham has since golfed with the president, praised the president’s golf game and his golf course, and acknowledged his strategy is to remain on the president’s good side to be influential.
Critics like Boehner would probably point out that for Graham, being on Trump’s good side also means reversing his previously strongly held positions about the rule of law.
Graham once warned the president there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. But this week, Graham suggested to the Associated Press that firing Sessions wasn't such an outrageous idea. Cabinet positions, Graham said, are “not lifetime appointments.”
Would it be easier for Republicans to speak out if more did it? Sure. Look at how a number of Trump’s GOP allies in the Senate are severely criticizing his tariff policy, and without significant repercussion. But GOP lawmakers know they are risking their jobs to stand up to a president their base still supports in large numbers.
In one sense, Boehner is spot on: All the evidence suggests Trump’s supporters are Trump’s supporters more than they are Republican voters.
But here's where Boehner gets its wrong, according to what we’ve seen unfold: The Republican Party isn’t taking a nap under Trump. It is being held hostage, so much so that would-be Trump critics must be willing to risk their influence and reputation and even their job to speak their mind on Trump like Boehner just did.