The question from there was whether that would spur anyone else to speak out. Many Republicans and erstwhile Trump allies have expressed reservations about the president’s actions at any given point, but few have spoken in such unvarnished terms as Mattis did — or have his stature.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is raising her voice, though even in doing so, her comments reinforce how strained GOP criticism of Trump remains.
Murkowski, who has occasionally clashed with Trump and entertained voting to remove him from office during his impeachment trial, on Thursday offered a pretty full-throated endorsement of what Mattis had said.
“I thought Gen. Mattis’s words were true and honest and necessary and overdue,” Murkowski said.
That’s a big and very significant statement from a GOP senator. It was what else she said, though, that furrowed some brows.
Murkowski was also asked whether she would be supporting Trump in the 2020 election, and she left it an open question.
“I am struggling with it,” she said. “I have struggled with it for a long time.”
As many have pointed out, it’s difficult to square those two quotes. On the one hand, she endorsed comments in which Mattis described Trump as something approaching a threat to the Constitution and someone intentionally dividing the country; on the other hand, she’s suggesting this is the kind of person she could still somehow potentially support? It’s one thing to differ with specific Trump actions and comments. It’s another to sign on to such an unreserved denunciation of Trump’s very essence.
(In his comments, Mattis also said, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”)
It’s theoretically possible, of course, that Murkowski only intended to endorse certain aspects of what Mattis said and not the entirety of it. But as was often the case during the 2016 campaign, we have a Republican who offered some very harsh words about Trump’s character and adherence to the law suggesting those criticisms might give way to partisan or ideological concerns. Is it really better to have that kind of person than a Democrat?
And there’s another portion of her comments that is also difficult to reconcile. In it, she suggests moments like this might indeed spur people like her to speak out more forcefully against Trump.
“When I saw General Mattis’s comments yesterday, I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up,” Murkowski said. “And so I’m working as one individual to form the right words, knowing that these words really matter.”
She added that “we are all struggling with ways to express the words that need to be expressed appropriately.”
One way to read this is that she’s leaning into the idea that there needs to be some kind of reckoning within the Republican Party when it comes to Trump — which is precisely what Trump’s opponents have been pining for. On the other hand, she’s suggesting that she or perhaps other Republicans have held back from saying what they truly think.
It would seem to be very important for her, as an elected official, to have been honest about these things from the start. Whether she’s talking now about herself or her GOP colleagues more broadly, she’s confirming that they haven’t completely leveled with the American people when it comes to what they think about the man leading our country. The question from there is: Why not?
Murkowski’s comments emphasized the importance of conveying that message “appropriately,” and perhaps she would say she wants to make sure nothing is misunderstood or handled carelessly. But if she or others aren’t saying what they truly believe, that’s something voters would sure seem to be interested in.
This is, of course, a double-edged sword for Trump’s opponents. They’ve often criticized members such as Murkowski who speak out but not as forcefully as those opponents feel is warranted. On the other hand, even gentle criticism of Trump is often met with his wrath and the wrath of his base, and few have been willing to say what Murkowski has — the one big exception being Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Attacking the likes of Murkowski for not speaking out more forcefully could tempt her to do so, but it also could cause those who would dare to venture such criticisms to clam up and feel that they can’t win either way.
The big takeaway from Murkowski’s comments, though, is that she’s confirming that these much-more passionate and perhaps negative thoughts do lurk beneath the surface in the GOP. Acknowledging that is significant — even if it also reinforces how unlikely it is that we’ll ever hear the kind of unvarnished expressions from within the GOP that we heard from Mattis.