TULSA — Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) believes some of President Trump’s recent threats against the news media run contrary to the Bill of Rights.
Unlike some Republican senators, you won’t hear him question Trump’s character or fitness for office as a result. But Lankford has not shied away from pointing out, if sometimes indirectly, where he and Trump diverge.
“I see that as against the First Amendment,” Lankford said of Trump’s recent tweet suggesting that TV networks’ “licenses” should be revoked because of “Fake News” reporting.
“I don’t want anyone, from any party, deciding what the press can and cannot write,” he said. “I would also say, first things first on it, the American people pick who is fit for office. I don’t question his fitness for office based on a preference on how he communicates.”
The 49-year-old senator, a widely respected up-and-comer within the GOP, is a prime example of how Republicans who disagree with Trump but don’t want to alienate his supporters are navigating the president’s latest controversial comments.
Lankford is savvy about the political risks of openly defying Trump, and he has done so carefully.
In June, he made headlines when he said Trump’s conversations with former FBI director James B. Comey about an investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, were “very inappropriate.”
Later that month, when Trump referred to MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski as “Psycho Joe” and “low I.Q. Crazy Mika,” Lankford said the tweets didn’t “help our political or national discourse.”
But his strategy of criticizing the president without naming him was most apparent after Trump blamed “both sides” for violence at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville in August that resulted in three deaths.
“Our words must not create confusion,” Lankford said in a lengthy statement. “The supremacy of any race is abhorrent, un-American and should be condemned by everyone. Period.”
Last week, Trump gave Lankford and other Republicans plenty to disagree with.
In an interview before a town hall here, Lankford said he disagreed with Trump’s tweets Thursday suggesting that federal aid workers pull out of Puerto Rico just 3½ weeks after Hurricane Maria hit.
But he was careful not to criticize Trump directly.
“Traditionally, we’ve stayed in a disaster zone as long as needed,” he said. “I would expect there to be people on the ground from FEMA for at least two years in Puerto Rico.”
Lankford went just far enough to indicate he’s bothered by Trump’s frequent tweeting, particularly when it comes to escalating threats toward North Korea and the president’s recent criticism of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
“I don’t like the rhetoric,” Lankford said. “I don’t like the way it’s coming out in a Twitter war back and forth.”
Still, he took pains to be evenhanded about Trump’s appeal.
“I know some people say, ‘I don’t like [Trump’s] policies, or I don’t like the way he communicates,’ ” he said. “There are also other Americans that love how he communicates.”
The political reality in deep-red Oklahoma means Lankford has to be careful about crossing Trump.
The state went for Trump over Hillary Clinton last year by 36.4 percentage points, supporting him even more strongly than Mitt Romney, who won the state by 33.5 percentage points in 2012. A SoonerPoll quarterly survey released in September showed that a majority of likely voters in Oklahoma still view Trump favorably, despite his record-low national approval rating. Denouncing Trump could, at some point, bring Lankford a primary challenge from his right.
Republican voters are also sensitive to how GOP members of Congress privately view the president. Thirty-seven percent think Republican lawmakers only pretend to like Trump in order to enact their agenda, according to a new survey from CBS News. Thirty-nine percent said they feel their party doesn’t like Trump and is trying to undercut him.
Alienating Trump’s supporters is not the only concern: A confrontation with the president and his allies could turn into a nasty public brawl.
This just happened to Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), another younger GOP senator from a red state, who was outraged by Trump’s latest comments on the news media. In addition to questioning networks’ licenses, Trump had said it’s “frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.”
Sasse issued a public statement asking whether Trump was recanting his oath to preserve, protect and defend the First Amendment. His anger garnered praise from Trump critics on the right but also drew an attack from Fox News host and regular Trump defender Sean Hannity.
“One of the biggest mistakes in my career was supporting Ben Sasse,” Hannity tweeted. “Just useless.”
Sasse replied that it was Hannity who had changed, “not me.”
“Some of us still believe in the Constitution. No President should play with censoring news they dislike,” he tweeted.
Before Sasse, it was Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who came forward among Republicans to criticize Trump.
After the president went after him on Twitter, Corker, who is not running for reelection, responded by calling the White House an “adult day-care center,” arguing Trump’s recklessness has put the United States “on the path to World War III” and saying GOP senators were privately concerned about Trump’s fitness for office.
Lankford said he hasn’t heard Republican senators express concerns about Trump contributing to another potential world war and praised the administration’s military posture toward North Korea, specifically the role of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
“I know the rhetoric, there might be disagreement with,” he said. “What’s actually been done on North Korea is pretty historic.”
In a Senate Republican Conference fraught with conflict and showboating, Lankford is considered levelheaded. Elected in 2014 to replace retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative Republican and member of the Intelligence and Appropriations committees has built a reputation as a serious legislator.
He declined to answer directly when asked if he would cast another vote for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“Mitch McConnell is the leader in the Senate, period,” Lankford said. “I anticipate he’ll be the only one running in the days ahead.”
McConnell’s hold on the conference has steadily weakened after a wave of legislative defeats, criticism from the White House and most recently, the loss of his preferred candidate in Alabama’s special Republican Senate primary runoff.
Lankford offered muted criticism of McConnell’s famously tight-lipped style.
“Mitch is historically known for keeping issues very close to the vest and that no one else in the Senate knows his plans. That is something that needs to open up,” Lankford said.
The war within the Republican Party was far from the minds of the people who gathered to hear Lankford speak Thursday night in a historically black area of north Tulsa, where a prolonged and deadly race riot targeted residents in 1921.
At the under-renovation Big 10 Ballroom, a former music venue where talents such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Count Basie played, Lankford let his background as a Baptist preacher show with exhortations to the crowd.
“Has your family invited a family of another race to your home for dinner?” he asked the roughly 250-person audience, about half white and half black. “I’m not talking about some structured something. . . . Just normal conversation so that you’re developing friendships.”
The crowd cheered a woman’s question about universal health care and a man’s comment that health insurance he received through the Affordable Care Act saved his life.
Lankford knew his audience, which included current and former Democratic officials, young people with questions about the Dream Act and several members of Moms Demand Action, a pro-gun control group.
Asked at one point why Republicans hadn’t managed to enact a health-care plan, he deadpanned: “You’re welcome.”
Trump’s name wasn’t mentioned once — and Lankford never brought him up.