WASHINGTON ― It was supposed to be a day of unity, one where President Donald Trump and Republicans could circle the wagons and kick off their push for tax reform over lunch in the Senate.
Their day careened off the rails shortly after it began, however, as two GOP senators dealt successive blows to the president within hours of each other, sowing further uncertainty about the future of the Senate majority and the Republican Party at large.
Retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) fired the first shot in the early hours of the morning. Giving several cable news interviews, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman lamented that Trump would be remembered for the “debasement of our nation.” The senator further stated that he did not think Trump was a role model to children, and that he regretted supporting him during the 2016 presidential election.
Trump quickly fired back in a series of tweets, falsely accusing the Tennessee Republican of supporting the Iran nuclear deal and mocking him for retiring and that he “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.”
Awkwardness at being in the same room aside, the two men did not speak at lunch, which took place shortly after noon. The discussion mostly centered on taxes and was positive, Corker told reporters afterward.
“There were no fireworks,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said before jumping into an elevator.
The explosions came an hour later, however, after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) walked onto the Senate floor and announced that he, too, would not be seeking reelection next year.
In a stunning takedown of Trump, Flake railed about the tone of politics in America and called the president’s behavior “outrageous” and “dangerous to democracy.” He again urged his many fellow Republicans to speak out against demagoguery and incivility in the Trump era.
“I will not be complicit or silent,” Flake said. “When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ What are we going to say?”
Speaking to reporters after delivering his remarks, Flake insisted he still wanted to work with Trump on several issues, like tax reform and passing a legislative fix to protect young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. (Hours after criticizing Trump, Flake also joined 49 of his colleagues to overturn a Barack Obama-regulation that would have allowed class-action lawsuits against big banks and credit card companies.)
Still, Flake acknowledged that a weight was lifted off his shoulders on Tuesday.
“I certainly think that being unencumbered by a race coming up [makes] it easier to speak out,” he told HuffPost after his speech.
Although Flake has been more outspoken about Trump than Corker ― the Arizona Republican wrote a book earlier this year declaring conservatism in a “crisis” ― both of their departures will likely make it even more difficult for Republicans to maintain unity after failing to come together to repeal Obamacare.
Flake’s newfound freedom only adds to the pile of problems for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who controls a thin, two-seat majority. In addition to his feud with Trump, for example, Corker has sounded alarm bells by expressing his concern that the GOP tax plan could balloon the deficit.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer, has similarly ratcheted up his rhetoric about Trump. In another sharply worded speech last week, the Arizona Republican warned about the rise of nationalism.
A pending special Senate election in Alabama to replace the former seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions could also deliver disappointing results. The favorite in the race, GOP nominee Roy Moore, is a controversial judge who has railed against “swamp king” McConnell and his allies in Washington. Moore has so far only picked up endorsements from the anti-establishment GOP wing in the Senate: Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), indicating he may vote as they do if he wins the seat.
Flake’s decision to retire also signals a broader, coarser shift within the Republican Party. If that wasn’t evident after Trump’s election, it certainly was on Tuesday, when one of the GOP’s most amiable and well-liked senators decided he had had enough.
“If I could run the kind of race I’d like to run, and believe I could win a Republican primary, I might move forward. There’s a very narrow path now as a Republican.”
“Resentment is not a governing philosophy,” he added. “At some point, you’ve got to have actual policies and not just rile up the base.”
This post was updated to reflect that Flake joined his colleagues to overturn a regulation that would have allowed class-action lawsuits against big banks and credit card companies.