The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Retirement frees congressional Republicans to give some straight talk

Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), center, joined by Reps. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), right, and Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), speaks to reporters in December. Rooney broke with the party line on a recent GOP report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Among Republicans, the retiring kind have become the most outspoken.

Within hours of the release of a Republican report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) broke with the party line to suggest that President Trump was helped by Russia. He also criticized the partisan rancor of the congressional probe, saying “we have gone off the rails.”

After the Republicans’ humiliating performance in a special election in Pennsylvania, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said his GOP colleagues were foolish to blame the party’s candidate instead of the “very toxic environment” stemming from Trump’s tenure.

And Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) bemoaned “my party’s seeming amnesia” in a speech that condemned the way so many Republicans have embraced Trump’s bellicose style and “America First” agenda.

Rooney, Dent and Flake have all decided to retire at the end of the year. That gives these Republicans the freedom to speak their minds, about Trump and their congressional leaders. They are part of a select group of Republicans who will place the blame where they believe it lies, sometimes pointing their fingers at party leaders and Trump, while most of their GOP colleagues keep mum or offer outright support.

This past week, even Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who led the House investigation into the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, said Russia was trying to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. That put him at odds with several of his fellow Republicans.

Democrats get frustrated by the relatively small clutch of Republicans who voice outrage, either with leaders or toward Trump. They fear what the GOP caucuses will look and sound like next year when these internal critics are out of office.

To be sure, these Republicans have long tended to be the type who are more freewheeling and sometimes critical of both sides. Some suggest that these hyperpartisan times just magnify their criticism and make it seem that much more pronounced.

“I just tried to call them like I see them, and I guess I’m doing it a little more now,” Dent said in an interview. A leader of the House’s moderate Tuesday Group, Dent has regularly clashed with the most conservative wing.

Now, he’s advising Republicans in swing districts to do to Trump what Democrat Conor Lamb did in Tuesday’s special election by rejecting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as possible speaker, creating separation from the San Francisco liberal because of her deep unpopularity in southwest Pennsylvania.

“The exact advice I’ve been giving some of my colleagues,” Dent said.

How should Republicans handle it?

“The president goes off the rails, you need to call him out,” Dent said.

In many ways, these lawmakers are a throwback to an era when there were plenty of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Time, in that manner, along with geographical and political realignments have left them without much of a political foundation.

They used to name office buildings after lawmakers who worked across the aisle to get laws passed. Now, “the fear of primaries” makes it difficult for a Republican to speak out against Trump, Dent said.

Is President Trump trying to beat Republican Jeff Flake next year? Flake doesn’t care.

Flake found that out the hard way when he published a book last summer that was highly critical of Trump’s presidency — and even more critical of his fellow Republicans for not forcefully denouncing the president’s remarks about immigrants and his other intemperate statements.

A few months later, he delivered a floor speech highlighting those same points — as he announced that he would not run for reelection, because he could not win unless he bowed to pressure and applauded Trump.

In Nevada, Sen. Dean Heller (R) took the opposite path and is better positioned to win in November. A longtime supporter of immigrants, Heller denounced Trump from the moment he announced his campaign almost three years ago by attacking some Mexicans as “rapists.” Heller never endorsed Trump, and last spring he announced his opposition to the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Danny Tarkanian, a perennial conservative candidate, announced his challenge to Heller, and a super PAC run by Trump allies pounded the Nevada airwaves, criticizing Heller for abandoning the president on his first major legislative initiative.

Within a few weeks, and after a few modifications to the bill, the incumbent reversed course and voted to repeal the ACA. On Friday, Trump threw his support behind Heller and guided Tarkanian out of the Senate race and into a House campaign.

Faced with that political dynamic, Flake chose to retire. Dent was not facing a tough race at home but decided that now was the time to get out.

These Republicans can range quite far in terms of how and when they speak out. Rooney, for example, has far more contempt toward Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee over what he considers too many leaks during the Russia investigation.

But Rooney’s decision to retire came about after months of trying to see whether the institution could function again, with Republicans in total control of Washington.

“Things need to change,” Rooney told “The Daily,” a podcast by the New York Times, last July. In February, he decided that things had not changed enough, and he announced he would return to Florida and reboot his political career for state or local office.

Corker was channeling most Republican senators. You wouldn’t know it from their silence.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has wavered from being a Trump supporter to a fierce critic and then almost back to being a supporter. Initially helping Trump on global diplomacy, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee broke sharply against him after the president equivocated on whom to blame for the violence during the August neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.

A few weeks later, he announced he would not seek reelection, and he then spent the fall and early winter lobbing insults at Trump. But a few weeks back, Corker started flirting with reversing himself and running for reelection, leading to an effort to repair the breach with Trump to shore up his standing in the Tennessee primary.

It was too late; there was no detente, and Corker reiterated earlier this month his plans to retire.

Don’t be surprised if Corker returns to being a much more open Trump critic.

“When you’re not running again,” Dent said, “you can provide fairly objective analysis.”

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