The White House didn’t shy away from one of President Donald Trump’s top critics in the US Senate on Tuesday: they put Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in the seat right next to the President, making for a really interesting and totally awkward (for Flake, surely) photo op.
Trump took the opportunity to talk about how he’s unified the GOP and how they’re going to pass a tax reform bill.
“There’s a great spirit in the Republican Party like I’ve never seen before – like a lot of people have said they’ve never seen before. They’ve never seen anything like this, the unity,” Trump said.
Flake’s on board with the tax bill, but he’s also the prototype of how Trump’s done the opposite of unify the GOP. Trump basically declared political war on Flake, helping drive him from a re-election bid in Arizona. Flake, for his part, has warned that Trump’s leadership could end the GOP. The two do not see eye to eye.
Witness: Trump took one question during the photo op and defended his endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore despite allegations Moore sought relationships with teenagers when he was in his 30s. Moore has denied the allegations.
“We certainly don’t want to have a liberal Democrat that’s controlled by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” Trump said, making clear he’d rather have someone accused of molestation than a political opponent.
Flake sees it differently. He went out after the lunch and wrote Moore’s opponent, the Democrat, a $100 check with the memo line, “Country over party.”
So for Trump to put Flake right next to him was essentially Trump showing Flake off like a war trophy. A prop. Flake didn’t get the opportunity to speak; he’s not the President.
Keeping his enemies closest for the cameras is a favorite move of the President.
When Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declined an invitation to talk about a must-pass spending bill last month after Trump insulted them, Trump (in the same room, mind you) put papers with their names at empty seats on either side of him and turned their absence into the photo op.
Back in July, Trump sat next to Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who was on the fence about an Obamacare repeal effort (Heller opposed the version then being debated, but ultimately supported a Republican effort that didn’t pass). And it was when Trump was sitting next to Heller that he sort of jokingly threatened Heller’s job.
“This was the one we were worried about,” Trump said at the time, directing his attention to Heller. “You weren’t there. But you’re gonna be. You’re gonna be. Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he? And I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they’re gonna appreciate what you hopefully will do.”
Later in July, Trump held another meeting on health care at the White House and he put Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two skeptics of the plan, right beside him.
The pressure didn’t change their minds, however, and the repeal effort ultimately failed. Just like putting Jeff Flake next to the President didn’t actually mean the party was unified. It meant that Trump is in charge.