Donald Trump: many Republicans are privately scathing about their president, but party members are increasingly airing their views © Reuters
Just minutes after Mitch McConnell swatted away questions about the astonishing feud between Bob Corker and Donald Trump by saying that “everybody gets to express themselves” in America, the Republican Senate majority leader witnessed another peer launch a blistering attack on the president.
“There are times when we must risk our careers in favour of our principles. Now is such a time,” Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said in a remarkable speech in which he announced his retirement and castigated Mr Trump for undermining US values.
“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,” said Mr Flake, who will serve through January 2019.
Many Republicans are privately scathing about Mr Trump, but Mr Flake has been one of the few public critics. Even by his standards, the speech was a remarkable reminder of the challenge Republicans face in dealing with an unorthodox president.
“There have often been spats, but the rhetoric in modern times has never been this coarse, personal or sophomoric,” said Tom Daschle, former Democratic Senate majority leader.
While most Republicans try to avoid publicly criticising the president to boost the chances of the party passing tax reform and to lessen the odds that Mr Trump will support a primary challenge against them before the November 2018 congressional elections, party members with less to lose are increasingly speaking out.
Mr Corker on Tuesday added to recent comments when he described the White House as an “adult day care centre”, accusing Mr Trump of being a liar who was debasing the US. Last week, John McCain, another Arizona Republican senator who is battling brain cancer, criticised the wealthy Americans who avoided serving in Vietnam — comments that were seen as a swipe at the president.
As Mr Connell tries to maintain a veneer of unity between his caucus and Mr Trump, he faces another challenge from outside government in Steve Bannon. The former White House strategist is enlisting a slate of candidates to run primary challenges against every Republican senator up for re-election in 2018 except Ted Cruz.
“The establishment Republicans are in full collapse. They’re not even fighting back. They’re out of ideas, guts and out of money,” Mr Bannon told the Financial Times. “Flake was polling like crazy and the numbers were coming back terrible. Flake shows you one important thing. The money is getting turned off. He went down without a fight.”
Republican Senator from Arizona Jeff Flake: ‘We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country’ © EPA
The departures of Mr Corker and Mr Flake represent wins for Mr Bannon who was already revelling in the victory of Roy Moore, a firebrand evangelical, over the establishment candidate in a recent Republican senate primary in Alabama. He had been lining up an opponent for Mr Corker and was championing Kelli Ward, a doctor who unsuccessfully challenged Mr McCain in 2016, to take on Mr Flake next year.
Mr Bannon has also been encouraging Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the controversial Iraq-war era private security company, to challenge John Barrasso, a moderate Republican senator from Wyoming, in the 2018 midterm elections.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia politics expert, said Mr Flake was “smart” to retire. “He had a miserable year in front of him — tough primary he might have lost, potentially a difficult general election, too. At best his chances to hold his seat were 50-50,” said Mr Sabato, who added that the Democrats had a “good chance” of picking up the seat if Ms Ward became the Republican candidate.
That is concern for Mr McConnell as the Republicans have only a 52-48 majority in the Senate. Republican leaders worry that failure to pass tax reform will anger their base — which already blames them for not helping Mr Trump — and make it easier for Mr Bannon’s candidates to oust mainstream Republicans in the 2018 primaries.
Doug Heye, a former spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, said the danger in trying to elect what anti-establishment Republicans call “true conservatives” was that you would make it easier for Democrats who are running for re-election in 2018, such as Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana, to win.
“Some have said they would rather see 20 ‘true conservatives’ — however you define that — than a Republican majority,” said Mr Heye. “But how will guaranteeing Claire McCaskill or Joe Donnelly stay in the Senate help make America great again?”
Mr Bannon counters that the establishment is misreading voters in the same way that it underestimated Mr Trump’s chances at winning the White House. He said the decision by lawmakers such as Mr Flake and Mr Corker, who had little trouble raising cash, underscored how far the mood had turned against mainstream lawmakers.
“They will start to fall like dominoes,” said Mr Bannon, who added that even politicians such as Mr Corker, had come under pressure.
Another problem facing Mr McConnell is uncertainty over whether Mr Trump will back the establishment politicians next year, or whether he will vent his frustrations with the Republican leadership by campaigning for the anti-establishment candidates.
At a recent press conference with the Kentucky senator, Mr Trump said he has a “great relationship” with Mr Bannon but was “going to see if we talk him out of that”. But Mr McConnell has learnt that the president can be quick to abandon his party. Mr Trump was angry after the Alabama primary when he himself had supported Luther Strange, the mainstream candidate, over Mr Moore who was backed by Mr Bannon.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi