Grassley’s open hectoring of Trump and his top advisers is the most public airing of a growing sense of irritation with how the president has positioned himself for his reelection bid this fall, a stumbling effort that has placed the GOP’s Senate majority in great peril.
Senate Republicans remain hesitant to openly criticize Trump on issues of race, his support for using force against protesters or his poor leadership in handling the coronavirus pandemic. The president treats direct attacks on his moral standing as betrayals that are met with fierce counterpunches, as happened in early June when Trump vowed to campaign in Alaska in 2022 against Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) after she admitted that she has long questioned his fitness for office.
So instead of such direct attacks on Trump, Senate Republicans are increasingly outspoken about his mismanaged campaign effort, how he gets distracted by petty fights and how he continues to embrace a tone that drives away middle-of-the-road voters who four months ago cheered their relative stability in a roaring economy.
Trump’s incoherent answer Thursday, in an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, about what he wanted to accomplish in a second term served as a trigger moment for Grassley and other conservatives, including the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
“He still has no second term message beyond his own grievances,” the Journal’s Thursday editorial stated.
The next morning Grassley fired off a couple of tweets directed at anyone with “access to the Oval Office,” pleading for them to show the president that editorial. He urged the Trump campaign to tout lowering unemployment and placing conservative justices on the Supreme Court as central objectives in another term.
Finally, by Saturday, Grassley put it bluntly: Trump was en route to losing badly to Democrat Joe Biden in the fall.
“McKinley sat on his front porch and didn’t campaign and was elected President. So it is possible for Biden to sit in his basement and not campaign and be elected President,” Grassley tweeted Saturday morning.
He was referencing the 1896 election, when former Ohio governor William McKinley (R) won without exerting much effort by building a big coalition looking for change — something Biden is trying to do as he rides out the pandemic mostly from his home in Wilmington, Del.
Biden now has a lead in national polls of almost 10 percentage points, and — more troubling to the Senate Republicans — polls in key battleground states such as Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia show Biden tied with or ahead of Trump. Those states are also home to Senate races with GOP incumbents running in their first bid for another term.
The main complaint from senators and GOP strategists is that Trump has done little to try to increase his support, focusing on pleasing his base of mostly older white voters, particularly those in exurbs and rural areas.
“He’s good with the base,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told CNN last week. “But all of the people who are going to decide in November are the people in the middle, and I think they want the president at a time like this . . . to strike a more empathetic tone.”
Thune is majority whip, the No. 2 Republican in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership team, but for the past month he has sent up flares about how Trump is driving voters away. After Trump tweeted in late May that racial justice protesters would get shot, possibly by U.S. military forces, if they started looting, Thune politely said the president was wrong.
“The country is looking for healing and calm. And I think the president needs to project that in his tone,” he said late on the afternoon of June 1.
About an hour later, U.S. Park Police violently cleared Lafayette Square so that Trump could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo opportunity, leading Thune to lament the next day that the president was unable to stick with a unifying message.
“He has moments. But, you know, I mean, as you know, it lasts generally as long as the next tweet,” Thune said.
Republicans are increasingly taking their own cues to speak in their own voices about the biggest issues.
For instance, while Trump has refused to wear a mask, Senate Republicans have come to fully embrace the concept, particularly now that the coronavirus is spiraling out of control in Southern and Western states that are home to many GOP senators.
“We must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said in Senate floor remarks Monday afternoon.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) accompanied Vice President Pence on a visit to Dallas on Sunday as his state pulls back some of its reopening measures because of the massive spike in coronavirus cases there.
He is now preaching for a national testing strategy that in tone differs little from what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been saying for almost four months.
“I think now cries out for a strategy that tests more asymptomatic people so we can get a handle on the community spread, which is what’s going on now,” Cornyn told reporters Monday.
Trying to win a fourth term, Cornyn is a favorite for reelection, but Biden appears to be running the most competitive race in Texas by a Democrat in a generation.
The president has largely disappeared from GOP advertising, epitomized by an ad debuted in late May by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) that never mentions Trump or which political party Tillis serves in.
On Monday, Grassley, 86, talked about the president as if he were incapable of holding a single thought together and said it was Hannity’s fault that Trump sounded so foolish.
“I would blame Fox more than I blame the president, because the president, it’s easy for him to digress here and there, but Hannity — you assume Fox wants him to get reelected. Okay, so he says, What’s your plans for the next four years? So the president starts to answer it, and then digresses a little bit. Hannity should have got him back on the subject,” Grassley told reporters.