After a jaw-dropping day that saw President Donald Trump take fire from two of his own party’s leading figures, he is fighting back in true Trump style, belittling critics and declaring another win in the campaign to remake the Republican Party in his own image.
Trump launched another blast of comments and tweets Wednesday at Republican Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, a day after Flake denounced the president as a “danger to democracy” in a dramatic speech on the Senate floor, one in which he announced he would not seek re-election next year.
Asked about the “danger to democracy” comment, Trump shot back, “He’s saying that because he has nothing else to say.”
Speaking to reporters as he left for a political fundraiser in Texas, Trump said he thought Flake’s actions had helped the president politically in Arizona.
In three separate posts earlier in the day, Trump challenged Flake’s assertion that Senate support for the president is eroding as he leads Republicans toward a “train wreck,” noting that lawmakers had given him standing ovations during a Tuesday luncheon at the Capitol:
Wednesday morning on CNN, Flake suggested that the ovations Trump received should not be seen as an endorsement of the president’s behavior.
“A lot of my colleagues share the concerns I expressed on the floor yesterday,” he said. “We’ve hit the tipping point. At some point, the weight of it causes people to change and say, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ ”
Reactions to Flake statement
But on Capitol Hill Wednesday, key Republican lawmakers brushed aside Flake’s criticisms, even as prominent political commentator Mike Allen noted that Trump “enjoys public support (despite private gripes) from most of the 49 other Senate Republicans and 239 House Republicans, including every person in elected leadership.”
“He [Flake] had a disagreement with the president and is doing what he believes is appropriate,” Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma told VOA.
Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama suggested that Flake’s decision to retire had much to do with his popularity in Arizona, where his poll numbers have slumped since he wrote a book criticizing Trump.
“A lot of people weren’t surprised [by Flake’s announcement],” Shelby told VOA. “People, when they decide to run or not run, we check … how we’re doing at home. But if you check your polls and you’re not doing well, you think of other reasons to leave [Congress]. That’s the history of this place.”
Senate Democrats, however, lamented the rancor surrounding Flake’s impending departure.
“I worry about our standard of decency and honor,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said. “Everyone heard Senator Flake speak. It moved all of us. And it’s a shame he’s leaving this body.”
“It [Flake’s retirement] reflects a bitter and divisive politics that make it difficult for people in the middle to find a constituency,” independent Senator Angus King of Maine said.
In his Axios newsletter, Allen described the standing ovations by Republican senators during Tuesday’s luncheon as an acknowledgement of the president’s continued popularity among the party’s rank-and-file membership.
“Republican [senators] in private cringe at the thought of President Trump,” Allen wrote. “But it’s meaningless if they publicly bow to him, routinely vote for him and never condemn him. With few accomplishments, countless petty GOP fights and slights, Trump is strong as ever.”
Several prominent Trump allies were crowing at Flake’s retirement announcement.
Former adviser Steve Bannon’s right-wing Breitbart website quoted sources close to Bannon as saying he had “added another scalp to his belt as another establishment domino falls.”
Bannon had campaigned in Arizona last week for another Republican running for Flake’s Senate seat.
Many political analysts, however, are skeptical about Trump’s ability to walk the fine line between satisfying supporters and alienating his own party’s lawmakers, whose votes he will need to fulfill his legislative agenda.
“I don’t see a legislative upside to these battles,” Sarah Binder, a fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution, said. “This is a slim, fractured Republican Party and the president needs [nearly] every GOP senator’s vote to advance his agenda in Congress.”
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, noted that any miscalculation in strategy on the president’s part could prove disastrous.
“The predictable response would be investigations and a removal effort,” Turley said in an email to VOA. “It would guarantee that the second half of his term is mired in investigations and hearings. With only a couple seat margin, the risks are very, very high.”