On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump took to Twitter undeterred by the wave of criticism from members of his own party, and proceeded to attack two of his most vocal critics in the Senate.
The series of tweets showed once again that despite a number of high-profile Republicans distancing themselves from Trump over his handling of the hate groups involved in the violence in Charlottesville last weekend, Trump has “no regrets” and continues to put little stock in the consensus views of his party.
Recent polls show Trump’s support is slipping even among Republicans. Even though he won the presidency largely without support from the GOP establishment, the president has a critical calculation to make, namely whether he will double down and consolidate support from an enthusiastic alt-right, anti-establishment base, or whether it’s time to do damage control and avoid further alienation from traditional Republicans.
Beginning around 6 a.m., Trump attacked Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as a publicity seeker, who “falsely” accused the president of saying there is a “moral equivalency” between the white supremacists at the Charlottesville rally and the 32-year-old woman who was killed in the protests.
Graham had issued a statement on Wednesday encouraging Republicans to “fight back” against the idea that the GOP “has a welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world.”
On Thursday, Graham continued the Twitter feud, imploring Trump, “you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country. For the sake of our Nation — as our President — please fix this.”
Only minutes after his attack on Graham, Trump hit another GOP senator, Jeff Flake. The president endorsed Flake’s primary rival and called the Arizona Republican “toxic” and “a non-factor in the Senate.”
Flake, who is up for re-election in 2018, has been a thorn in Trump’s side for weeks, especially after writing his book,’The Conscience of a Conservative,’ with scathing attacks against Trump and the GOP. Following Trump’s statements on Charlottesville, Flake responded, “We can’t accept excuses for white supremacy & acts of domestic terrorism. We must condemn. Period.”
“An effective president needs allies,” Judd Thornton, American politics professor at Georgia State University insisted. He added that attacking Republican Senators over Twitter is “lunacy.”
The Thursday tweets are hardly the first time Trump has taken aim at members of his own party. Just last week, Trump turned his fire on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, suggesting that if the leader fails to pass a health care bill, tax reform and infrastructure bill, maybe he should resign.
This suggestion and a tweet telling McConnell to “get back to work,” led a number of Senate Republicans to plant their flag in the ground and defend their leader against the president’s criticism.
These attacks by Trump against Republicans on the Hill “demonstrate that he doesn’t understand how essential they are to his success,” Thornton said, noting that the fate of the president’s policy agenda and that of congressional Republicans are intertwined.
Other leading Republicans spoke out directly condemning Trump’s message to the neo-Nazi and white supremacists who rallied in Virginia. Senators John McCain of Arizona, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Marco Rubio of Florida all directly criticized the president.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who once campaigned with Trump told reporters in his home state that the president “has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability or some of the competence that he needs … in order to be successful.” Additionally, Corker said Trump “recently has not demonstrated that he understands the character of this nation.”
In the House, Republican representatives Will Hurd of Texas, Ed Royce of California and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Leonard Lance of New Jersey also directly challenged Trump.
Other elected Republicans, like McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan condemned bigotry and hatred, but did little to reject Trump’s equivocation.
Mickey Edwards, former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma and current Vice President of the Aspen Institute, emphasized that abstract statements condemning racism are insufficient, that Republicans need to specifically denounce the president’s equivocation on the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville.
“The party is being tarnished by this association with Trump and his comments,” Edwards said. “What we need to do is stand up and say this is not us, this is not who we are. And [elected officials] need to be willing to stand up and push back, or the Republican Party is going to destroy itself.”
The slim majority Republicans hold in the House and Senate could be at stake if elected officials fail to speak out strongly against Trump and if Democrats are able to capitalize on his missteps in the 2018 election.
Both former presidents Bush issued a strong joint statement condemning racism and bigotry, and Jeb Bush called out the president by name. However, Trump’s political calculus has never had any relation to moves by establishment Republicans, who are increasingly despised by the president’s base. As long as that base turns out for primary elections, the president can safely defend his positions, regardless of what the establishment Republicans say.
“He thinks this is going to help him,” Edwards said, noting that Trump has little to fear from the GOP establishment as long as his hardcore base shows for the primaries both in 2018 and 2020.
Similarly, that threat of losing those votes hard core conservative vote is why many Republicans have hesitated to denounce the president’s actions.
“For centuries we’ve had people who died, who gave their lives to stand up against evil. They did t in the Civil War they did it in World War II … and these guys aren’t willing to lose a vote,” Edwards said. “How can you respect that?”
By Wednesday it became clear that Trump’s troubles were not limited to elected officials after more than half a dozen CEOs and industry leaders quit the White House innovation and business councils. Preempting further pullouts, Trump moved to dissolve both forums. Many of the business leaders referred to the president’s ambiguous denunciation of hate groups involved in the violent protests as their reason for leaving.
Additionally, political groups that fully supported the president in the past, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, issued critical statements over Trump’s handling of Charlottesville.
Fox News, regularly praised by Donald Trump, acknowledged on Wednesday that the network was unable to book Republican guests who would defend the president. “We couldn’t get anyone to come and defend him here,” Sheperd Smith said on his Wednesday program.
It is not entirely clear what kind of damage control Trump and the Republican Party can do after a series of statements that left some questioning America’s “moral authority” under Trump.
Trump and the GOP could stay the course and shore up the most radical and mobilized elements on the right, in the hopes they will deliver an electoral victory. Or they could sharply distance themselves from those elements who associate or sympathize with the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville, and Trump himself if necessary.
It has been said that President Lyndon Johnson was euphoric when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, but he later acknowledged that being on the right side of history meant the Democrats had lost the South for a generation.
It’s a lesson that Edwards, a lifelong Republican, believes his party needs to consider in distancing itself from Trump and those who applauded his response to Charlottesville. “We need some Republicans to say maybe we take a hit in the elections, but this is the right thing to do.”