Sen. Ben Sasse ended a seven-month sabbatical Sunday night from tweetstorms, those rapid-fire thoughts on Twitter that the young Nebraska Republican used for the past three years to help boost his image as a conservative intellectual.
He was worried about President Trump’s summit the next day in Finland with Russian President Vladimir Putin, so he wrote eight tweets that excoriated Putin as a “murderer . . . a crook and a liar.” He urged Trump to deliver a strong message of condemnation to Putin over his cyber-invasion of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
It went as badly as Sasse feared.
“I think this has just been disastrous for America to have the President of the United States go abroad and imply that he doesn’t trust the intelligence services,” Sasse said. “When you know people who are risking their lives all around the world for American freedom.”
Sasse is one of the few Republicans who have been consistent presidential critics, telling his constituents in 2016 that he planned to vote for Mike Pence over Trump and forcefully opposing his protectionist trade policies that have led to a tariff war.
At a time when Trump’s Republican critics are either retiring or ailing, Sasse is the prototype to take on the role of leading conservative trying to steer the GOP toward its more traditional beliefs in free trade and strong national security, particularly in the posture toward Russia.
He’s just 46 and barely halfway through his first term in the Senate. A historian by trade, Sasse can move quickly from quoting Abraham Lincoln to making pop culture jokes that connect with millennials.
But Sasse is going through a bit of a crisis, in his views of the Senate and traditional party alliances. “The country is in a bad way. I think my party is in a bad way, but I think the institution of Congress, and the institution of the Senate, are arguably the second weakest in U.S. history,” he said in an interview Monday afternoon.
He has already drawn interest from some conservatives who dislike Trump as a potential presidential candidate. But if Sasse runs for a second Senate term in 2020, he is likely to face a primary opponent who vocally supports Trump.
Also, he might just chuck it all because he finds Washington suffering from “short termism.”
Sasse, who won his seat in 2014, said that he will decide next summer. “I really believe stuff and want to communicate about bigger stuff, and by the way, that usually means it’s not short-term partisan political things,” he said.
Part of that reflection led him to pause his Twitter habits over the Christmas holiday, at first wanting to focus on his family. He awoke on Dec. 26 feeling better without the habitual tweeting. “It seemed kind of great. And on December 27, I hadn’t gone back and it seemed kind of great,” he said.
So for more than six months he checked out of a platform that he had used to hone his image, gathering nearly 250,000 followers. It had become a toxic place where Trump supporters — or bots posing as presidential backers — and liberals heckled him in coarse terms, either for opposing Trump or for not doing enough to stop Trump.
Sasse and his wife, Melissa, developed ground rules for their children to stay off their phones for a certain stretch. “We think it’s overwhelmingly net negative for kids,” he said of social media.
He broke his Twitter moratorium once in the first half of the year, to denounce Trump’s tariff proposals, and returned only a few days ago.
“I took seven months off from Twitter and almost forgot that we’re supposed to hate each other,” he tweeted Thursday night.
And by Sunday night, he was in a full-fledged tweetstorm, blasting away at Putin and warning Trump to get tough with the Russian dictator.
But Trump took the opposite approach, questioning U.S. intelligence findings about Russia’s efforts to interfere in 2016.
“Let’s not mince words. Today was a terrible day for the American brand, for the American people,” Sasse said during a Senate floor speech Monday evening.
But Republicans have struggled to rein in Trump’s breaches with their orthodoxy.
Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) renewed calls Tuesday to pass legislation to give Congress a stronger voice in imposing tariffs, but they were given a nonbinding vote that won 88 symbolic votes. Another bill, to defend the special counsel investigation of Russian meddling in 2016, has languished after winning bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sasse considers himself a “futurist nerd” who obsesses over the tech revolution, but he still has to figure out his own future, whether he will take up the cause of leading the anti-Trump GOP wing after Corker and Flake retire at the end of the year or whether he will move on to another field.
Do not expect him to be nearly as prolific on Twitter, unless you are looking for updates on how the University of Nebraska’s new football coach fares this fall. His real dream job would be as an assistant coach for the Cornhuskers.
“I pledge to you right now,” he said in the interview, “I will announce it on Twitter.”