It’s not clear if what we have here is the beginning of the revolution or — and this is my guess — the lonely surrender of those few Republican officials who have been willing to speak the truth that Donald Trump’s presidency is a danger to America and to the world.
Whatever it turns out to be, the day was extraordinary. I don’t remember anything quite like it. Of course, I don’t remember any president even remotely like Trump.
It began with Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying that Trump is “utterly untruthful,” a dangerous liar who is “debasing” both the job and America’s place in the world, who has “devolved” instead of evolved, who lacks the “desire” to make the effort to be a competent leader, whom he would never support again — “no way” — and “who is obviously not going to rise to the occasion as president.”
Trump responded, in his fashion, by reminding everyone that Corker was short, or as Trump tweeted, “liddle.” Also a “lightweight” who couldn’t be elected dog catcher.
That was pretty extraordinary in and of itself. Of course, Corker had already said that Trump could be leading us to World War III and that the White House was basically an adult daycare center. So his anti-Trumpism, which Corker took to every network camera he could find, may not have been all that surprising, but it was still shocking.
What Corker — who is retiring in 2018 — didn’t do was call out his Republican colleagues as the Trumpian enablers that they are. He left that task, apparently, to Jeff Flake, who later in the day stunningly announced he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2018 either, because, he said, to do so would mean his “complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs” that is the Trump administration.
”It is time,” he said, “for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.”
The unacceptable is, of course, Trump. The complicit are Republican officials. The accommodation is, as Flake put it, Republicans “pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal…Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified.”
He said Republicans would never accept that in a Democratic president and must not “meekly” accept it in a Republican president.
It was definitely extraordinary. You can read the speech here. You can watch Flake, whose voice shook with emotion, here. You can wonder, as I did, whether Trump’s feud with Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, is what pushed Corker and Flake over the edge.
There were only a few Republicans in the room when he gave the speech. John McCain, Flake’s fellow Arizonan and Trump critic, was one. Corker was another. They reportedly gave him a standing ovation in the mostly empty chamber. Mitch McConnell was also there and thanked Flake for his service. It’s hard to know what McConnell is thinking, but it was probably about the need for 50 votes on tax cuts because, you know, what else really matters.
The problem is that the rebels aren’t manning any barricades. Corker and Flake are basically taking the next bus out of town. Flake was facing a Republican primary in which he already trailed badly in the polls. In his speech, he lamented that there seemed to be no space in Trumpworld for Republicans like him. Ezra Klein pointed out in Vox that Flake’s decision to quit was a victory for Trump, who couldn’t be happier. Steve Bannon said it was another “scalp” for his team. Yes, that’s what he said.
Corker, who supported Trump in the 2016 campaign, didn’t bring himself to become a full-time Trump critic until he had announced his retirement. Trump has insisted — almost certainly untruthfully — that Corker was retiring because Trump had refused to endorse him. Corker says Trump begged him to come back. But the point is still the same. Bravery, at this stage, comes only when the political stakes disappear.
John McCain, meanwhile, is battling brain cancer, and his fight with Trump may be his last one.
The question is who comes forward next, if anyone. We can be sure it won’t be Cory Gardner, who is the anti-Corker. Gardner slammed Trump during the campaign, calling him a “buffoon.” Once Trump was elected, though, Gardner pretty much fell into line, and now as chair of the NRSC, he is working to get Trumpist Republicans, like, say, the anti-Muslim, anti-gay Roy Moore elected. Moore is so much a Trumpist that he even offended Trump, who opposed him in the Republican Senate primary.
Flake is among the few Senate Republicans who has come out against Moore. Flake also wrote a book about his issues with Trump. He has bravely risked his career. And for those who say he still votes with Trump, that’s because Flake is a conservative. Being anti-Trump didn’t change his politics. It changed everything else.
As Flake said in his speech: “When we remain silent and fail to act when we know that silence and inaction is the wrong thing to do, because of political considerations, because we might make enemies, because we might alienate the base, because we might provoke a primary challenge, because ad infinitum, ad nauseam, when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of our institutions and our liberty, we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations.”
It was a remarkable moment. And now we sadly wait for the moment to pass.