Corker's full, blistering comments about Trump
06:13 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake was critical of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and has clashed with the President regularly over the past year. He railed against the rise of Trumpism in his August book, “Conscience of a Conservative.”

Now, like his colleague, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, Flake too will retire rather than seek re-election in 2018. He gave his reasons in a Tuesday afternoon speech on the Senate floor.

“We must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue – with the tone set at the top,” Flake said in remarks littered with direct charges against Trump. “We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals.”

Though Corker ultimately came to a similar decision, he took a different road to get there.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Corker was a high-ranking member of an informal but exclusive club: Republicans on Capitol Hill who took Trump’s presidential bid seriously – and spoke publicly about its potential upside.

In April of 2016, Corker called a Trump speech on foreign policy a “really good transition in the campaign” and “very thoughtful.” He told CNN’s Erin Burnett that Trump had reached out to him and they’d shared a “good conversation.” By late May, Corker was rumored to be under consideration for a vice presidential nod. And in November, after the election, he declared himself “in the mix” for the secretary of state job.

Corker’s personal relationship with Trump went pretty steadily downhill from there. In May, he said the administration was in a “downward spiral.” By August, he was questioning Trump’s “stability” and “competence.” After announcing he wouldn’t seek re-election late last month, Corker on Oct. 4 declared, “Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos.”

Trump fired back a few days later and their feud quickly escalated. On Tuesday, they again traded insults on Twitter, a reprise of the October 8 exchange that led Corker to compare the White House to “an adult day care center.” Now, Trump regularly mocks Corker’s height, while Corker questions his sanity.

It all adds up to a pretty entertaining sideshow. The real world consequences, however, are less clear.

That a pair of sitting US senators would so consistently and harshly assail any President, much less one from their own party is remarkable and certainly complicates matters for Republicans. But Corker and Flake, like their more quietly – or “privately” – concerned colleagues, have shown little sign of breaking with Trump on high-priority legislation. (That, in turn, highlights the fact that sticking close to Trump on the issues, and voting for his agenda, will not, as CNN’s Sam Petulla illustrated, spare you a Steve Bannon-backed primary challenge.)

According to the congressional tracker on Nate Silver’s, Corker has voted “in line with Trump’s position” nearly 88% of the time. For Flake, it’s 91.7%. By the same measure, another vocal Trump critic, Sen. John McCain, comes in at 83.3%. Maine’s Susan Collins, with the lowest score among Republicans, is an even 80%. Twenty of their Republican colleagues, including Corker’s fellow presidential punching bag, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have voted with the White House at or near a 95% clip.

Along those lines, Trump’s accusation Tuesday morning (one he repeated in a barrage of early tweets) that Corker “is now fighting Tax Cuts” was a head-scratcher. Yes, Corker has expressed resistance to legislation that might spike the deficit, but he’s hardly “fighting” Republican efforts.

Trump was more likely responding to Corker’s comments on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” when the senator suggested the White House steer clear of GOP tax negotiations so as not to further complicate an already tenuous process.

“What I hope is going to happen is the President will leave this effort, if you will, to the tax writing committees,” he said, “and let them do their work and not begin taking things off the table that ought to be debated in the committees at the proper time.”

Compared to his other remarks about Trump, like the series of headline-grabbing swipes he took during an interview with CNN’s Manu Raju, Corker’s brushback on taxes seemed weirdly mild.

But the record shows it’s anything but. Trump’s attacks on Senate Republicans surely complicate efforts to manage the party’s narrow majority, but he is unlikely, as the math makes clear, to scuttle any popular bill with an abrasive tweet or two, or 22.

House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday offered the most apt description of the current state of play. Here’s what he told reporters on Tuesday as the potshots rained down harmlessly around him:

“So all this stuff you see on a daily basis, Twitter this and Twitter that, forget about it. At the end of the day, I know Bob well. Bob is going to vote for Tennessee, he’s going to vote for America, he’s going to vote for tax reform because he knows it’s best interest of Americans, so put this Twitter dispute aside.”