WASHINGTON — The intraparty war in the Republican Party broke out into the open on Tuesday as two prominent Republican senators accused President Donald Trump of “debasing our country” and being “dangerous to a democracy.”
The stark rhetoric used by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in the surprise announcement he won’t run next year after a war of words between retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Trump overshadowed the president’s trip to Capitol Hill to discuss taxes with Republican senators.
“I will not be complicit or silent,” Flake said in a Senate floor speech, saying he would not run again so he could criticize Trump without political concerns for “personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.”
“Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has been excused as telling it like it is when it is actually reckless, outrageous and undignified. When such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else,” Flake said. “It is dangerous to a democracy.”
Earlier Tuesday, Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who will step down after two terms, took to the airwaves and Twitter in a heated exchange with the president to accuse Trump of being “untruthful” and unworthy of being a role model for children.
“When his term is over, I think the debasing of our nation, the constant non-truth telling, and the — just the name calling, the things that I think, the debasement of our nation is what we will be remembered most important, and that’s regretful,” Corker told CNN.
The surprisingly harsh criticism by two top Republican senators against the leader of their own party in the White House highlighted the struggle prompted by Trump’s battle with the Republican establishment and many of its long-held policies and postures.
Trump’s economic nationalist supporters and the White House declared victory.
“Our movement will defeat you in primaries or force you to retire,” tweeted Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former adviser and Breitbart News chair, after Flake’s announcement. “The days of establishment Republicans who oppose the people’s America First agenda are numbered.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders welcomed Flake’s retirement. She said constituents of the two senators support Trump more than either of them and said Corker and Flake had not tried hard enough to enact the president’s agenda.
Trump “wants people to be in the Senate that are committed to actually moving the ball down the field, and I don’t think these two individuals necessarily have been as focused on that,” Huckabee Sanders said.
Both senators faced uphill primary battles against conservatives, with Flake facing Kelli Ward, a challenger backed by Trump and Bannon.
In a speech he made with a sometimes halting voice, Flake called on colleagues to also speak out, citing “duty and conscience.”
Flake called “the notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters” a misguided idea.
On Tuesday morning, Corker, who backed Trump in his campaign, made the rounds of TV news shows to urge Trump to let “professionals” craft tax legislation without complicating it by taking off the table through tweets things such as a lid on contributions to 401(k) retirement funds.
Trump responded swiftly with a string of tweets, charging that Corker “couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Tennessee,” and accused Corker of being responsible for the Iran nuclear deal, though he voted against it.
Corker tweeted back: “Same untruths from an utterly untruthful president. #AlertTheDaycareStaff.”
After the Senate Republican luncheon meeting with Trump, senators said the Twitter fight didn’t come up and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to discuss it.
But McConnell had warm words for Flake after his announcement, saying, “We’ve just witnessed a speech from a very fine man, a man who clearly brings high principles to the office every day.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the show on which Sen. Bob Corker appeared Tuesday morning.