As the public feud between President Trump and Sen. Bob Corker stretched through its third day on Tuesday, a collective, if private, acknowledgment emerged that Corker was speaking for most Senate Republicans when he stood up to a Trump taunt.
You wouldn’t know it from senators’ public pronouncements. After Corker tweeted on Sunday that the White House had been turned into “an adult day-care center,” most Republicans were silent — deciding to ride out this moment with the belief that it would fade away.
Their statements about the dispute have cited simple facts and avoided taking sides with either Trump or their Republican colleague from Tennessee. They do not intend to get drawn into the fight themselves, and there is no big wave of new GOP senators about to join Corker in his vast condemnation of the president.
Their goal? To avoid alienating Trump’s base ahead of the 2018 midterm elections — and to keep some hope alive that they can achieve a legislative victory before the end of the year.
It’s left the entire Republican caucus in something resembling institutional paralysis, unsure of what to do or how to do it, but doing it in sync with nearly identical bland statements of nothingness.
A case in point is Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who drew the unlucky straw of being in charge Tuesday of overseeing a pro forma session of the Senate while the rest of his colleagues were away for a recess. Afterward, CNN’s Ted Barrett tracked him down outside the Capitol to ask about the back-and-forth between the president and the Corker.
“I’m supportive of both of them. I’d like to see it stop,” Blunt said. Pressed by Barrett about which one needs to take the first step, Blunt ducked the issue.
“I think I’ve said all I need to say,” he said, then dodged one more question and got into his car.
Despite such public postures, many Republicans are exhausted by the president’s impulsive nature and his unwillingness to dive too deeply into the details of the legislative agenda. They blame his erratic steps for the policy failures so far. They have bristled at his repeated attacks on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over the past two years and at his lieutenants’ alleged threats to withhold federal funding to Alaska if Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) opposed the GOP bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
McCain and Murkowski delivered two of the three Republican votes that defeated the repeal effort, leaving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) just one vote short.
Many Republicans are most dismayed by Trump’s behavior on the global stage, which led to Corker’s outburst Sunday night to the New York Times, suggesting that Trump could lead the nation accidentally into World War III.
By Tuesday morning Trump had still not let the matter fade away, dubbing the senator “Liddle” Bob Corker and saying that the senator had been duped by the Times into speaking so freely.
All of this comes after Corker had voiced concerns about the size of an emerging plan to cut taxes that is likely to require the support of at least 50 of the 52 Senate Republicans to win approval. There is a palpable fear that the tax effort will replay the saga of the health-care struggle — ending in defeat, with a few Republicans personally disparaged by Trump choosing to oppose him.
The frustration is still mostly beneath the surface, provided in background comments or off-the-record venting, from lawmakers themselves or their senior advisers.
What made Corker different was his willingness to go public with his critique, something only a few other Republicans, including McCain, have done.
Corker’s comments came just days after he announced he would retire next year rather than seek reelection. And McCain, 81, won reelection last year by a wide margin and is now battling brain cancer.
They might never have to face Republican voters again in a primary, while their colleagues planning to remain in office either fully embrace Trump or try to avoid angering conservative base voters. The lone exception has been Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who this year published a book sharply criticizing fellow Republicans for not doing more to stop Trump.
The result? Flake is now viewed as trailing his primary opponent, a former state senator, ahead of next August’s primary.
Given Flake’s current state, most Republicans have decided to not to follow in his, or Corker’s or McCain’s, path of trying to verbally challenge Trump.
One step would be to advance legislation drafted by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) that would provide job insurance for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, should the president try to fire him while his investigation continues into the 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia.
That legislation is still sitting in the Judiciary Committee, where it is viewed as a break-the-glass solution if Trump does fire Mueller because it includes retroactive protections for the office.
Aside from Mueller, the Senate Intelligence Committee continues its parallel look into Russian efforts to influence the election, but that probe will last deep into this year or possibly well into next.
Its leaders, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), held a news briefing last week that seemed designed merely to assure the world that they were making progress but that nothing was imminent.
This makes it all the more likely that Corker — now on a family vacation and not talking to the press — will remain a lonely outlier in his sharp criticisms of Trump on the Republican side of the aisle.
It has left many former senators flummoxed by the institutional fear of challenging a president from one’s own party, a lessening of the body’s overall influence. Walking through the Capitol on Tuesday, one former senator recalled the lesson that the late Robert C. Byrd, the Democrat from West Virginia and the longest serving senator ever, often imparted on colleagues.
Byrd was once asked how many presidents he had served under.
“None,” Byrd would say. “I have served with presidents, not under them.”