How Significant Is Latest Republican Criticism of Trump?

George W. Bush, John McCain, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake don’t mince words. But they have nothing to lose.

Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona attends a campaign event with his wife, Cheryl, in Mesa, December 12, 2015
Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona attends a campaign event with his wife, Cheryl, in Mesa, December 12, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

Senior Republicans have castigated President Donald Trump in the last week, some implicitly, others explicitly.

  • George W. Bush, former president: “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication. … We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. … We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism — forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. … Our identity as a nation […] is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. Being an American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility.”
  • John McCain, Arizona senator, former presidential candidate and chairman of the Armed Services Committee: “To fear the world we have organized and led for three quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
  • Bob Corker, Tennessee senator and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee: “The president has great difficulty with the truth. … I don’t know why he lowers himself to such a low, low standard and debases our country in a way that he does, but he does. … He’s obviously not going to rise to the occasion as president.”
  • Jeff Flake, Arizona senator: “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency.”

Big deal

Peter Wehner, a George W. Bush Administration official, is delighted, tweeting, “At least the cover-up re: Trump’s fitness for office is ending.”

Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg View agrees this is a big story:

This is no normal presidency and Corker’s (and McCain’s and Flake’s) actions are good markers of just how inadequate Trump is at the job of president of the United States — and indicators of the costs to his party and to the nation of having a president who is not fit for the office.

Or is it?

But it’s worth noting the critics have something in common: they have nothing to lose.

Bush isn’t eying a comeback. McCain is battling brain cancer. Corker and Flake have announced their retirement from the Senate.

Mike Allen of Axios points out that Trump still enjoys the public support (despite private gripes) of most of the 49 other Senate Republicans and 239 House Republicans, including every person in the leadership.

Jonathan Chait argues in New York magazine that the fact that only Republicans in or close to retirement will speak out “indicates how thoroughly Trump has captured the party.” Others are afraid of provoking pro-Trump primary challengers.

Ross Douthat urges the president’s critics to show more courage and run, even if defeat is certain:

The president’s GOP critics should engage in electoral battle because the act of campaigning, the work of actually trying to persuade voters, is the only way anti-Trump Republicans will come to grips with the legitimate reasons that their ideas had become so unpopular that voters opted for demagoguery instead.