President Donald Trump was largely able to avoid discussion of his bitter feud with fellow Republicans during what appeared to be a unifying lunch with the party’s senators on Tuesday.
But minutes after Trump departed Capitol Hill, the junior Republican senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, excoriated Trump in a floor speech announcing his his retirement from the body.
“We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal,” Flake said, discarding any appearance of party unity in favor of what he cast as a principled stance against Republican complacency in the face of Trump’s presidency.
It was a telling series of events that laid bare Trump’s fraught relationship with Republicans, many of whom are caught between their own principles and supporting a President still popular among their base voters.
Those fault lines were apparent earlier Tuesday after an early morning war of words between Trump and the senior Republican on the foreign relations committee.
But as Trump’s lunch meeting with Senate Republicans broke up, senators said the spat with Sen. Bob Corker didn’t arise over plates of meatloaf and cherry pie. Instead, they indicated the President focused his remarks on selling lawmakers on different policy initiatives, including a tax reform plan he hopes will become his first major legislative achievement after a series of disappointments.
“We’re here to try to accomplish things for the American people,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who himself has been subject to Trump’s harsh criticism.
“We’re all on the same page on the issues I mentioned,” he said, naming economic revival as an area of common interest for Senate Republicans and the President.
The 70-minute lunch largely avoided the areas of dispute between Trump and his congressional cohorts, including his treatment of a Gold Star widow whose husband was killed in Niger and the multiple probes into his campaign’s dealings with Russia.
Even the points of contention on tax reform were largely papered over during the meeting, senators said, in favor of a more surface-level discussion of areas of common interest.
Facing multiple questions about the divide between members of his GOP caucus and the President, McConnell turned the focus back to tax reform, which he said Republicans had long sought but now, finally, have an opportunity to pass.
“If there’s anything that unifies Republicans, it’s tax reform,” he said. “We’ve been looking for the opportunity to do this literally for years. We now have a president who will sign it, who believes in what we’re trying to do and we’re going to concentrate on what our agenda is and not any of these other distractions that you all may be interested in.”
Trump was accompanied to the Hill by chief of staff John Kelly, legislative affairs director Marc Short and press secretary Sarah Sanders, according to a White House staffer. Not present were the two men who have been leading the administration’s tax reform efforts: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn, the staffer said.
“I thought it was very positive, upbeat,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who insisted there was no discussion during the talks about Trump’s disputes with Republican senators.
Cornyn also indicated Trump surveyed the senators about potential selections to lead the Federal Reserve, a decision he’s expected to unveil as soon as this week. A nominee will face confirmation hearings at the Banking Committee and an approval vote by the full Senate.
In the senators’ description, the lunch oozed unity without a mention of the brouhaha between the President and Corker, which began over the summer but which has recently escalated dramatically. Tensions rose earlier Tuesday thanks to a new scuffle between Trump and Corker, who, in terming the White House an “adult day care,” has implied Trump may be drifting into senility.
In a sign of how theatrical the feud between Trump and Corker has become, another Republican senator, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, carried a carton of popcorn to lunch in anticipation of fireworks.
The latest spat was prompted by Corker’s televised rebuke of Trump’s skepticism over a plan to alter 401(k) retirement plans, which came as lawmakers continue to draft tax reform legislation that both sides agree is a necessity. Corker implied Trump was getting ahead of policymakers in his declaration that 401(k) plans would not change under the new law.
Trump responded by firing off volleys on Twitter that labeled Corker a backer of the Iran nuclear deal and an incompetent politician who “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.”
On the Iran deal charge, Trump’s statement was misleading; Corker was an opponent of the 2015 accord negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration. And Trump’s claims that he refused to endorse Corker for re-election have been refuted by the senator’s staff.
But the remarkable barrage of insults laid bare the tenuous relationship between the President and members of his own party, who will determine his success in passing a massive tax reform passage