President Donald Trump's most prominent GOP critics retiring in days begs the question of who — if anyone — will take their place as willing to publicly criticize a president who remains popular with nearly 9 in 10 Republican voters.
Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., engaged in a war of words with the president on myriad issues over the past 18 months, generating headlines and fiery tweets from a president who generally insists on getting the last word. Those battles put them on the outs with many in their own party, and they paid a price. Both decided to retire rather than take on a difficult re-election campaign.
Flake was far and away Trump's most consistent critic among Senate Republicans. Corker weighed in less often, but his description of the White House as an "adult daycare center" rankled the president, who dubbed him "Liddle' Bob Corker." The feud continued as Corker headed for the exits, with Trump asserting Corker's promise to serve only two terms was not the real reason he retired. Rather, Corker "wanted to run but poll numbers TANKED when I wouldn't endorse him," Trump tweeted.
Corker replied: "Yes, just like Mexico is paying for the wall . . . #AlertTheDaycareStaff."
For now, do not expect any Republican senator to take their place as chief agitator when the new Congress convenes Thursday, said Rory Cooper, a GOP strategist who helped lead the "Never Trump PAC" during the 2016 Republican primary. He said publicly criticizing the president makes Republican votes back home unhappy and earns the ire of the president. Meanwhile, Democratic voters and the media give them too little credit, he said.
"There is not an incentive structure for senators who disagree with or oppose the president to speak out right now, but that could change if the [Robert] Mueller investigation continues to move in the direction it has been or the economy churns negative," Cooper said.
Two other Republicans, Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., have both had their public run-ins with the president.
Throughout his Senate campaign, Romney insisted he would agree with Trump on some issues and not be shy about disagreeing on others. Romney appears to have more room with GOP voters in Utah to take on the president. Most voters in Utah — 64 percent — would like to see the senator confront the president, according to data from AP VoteCast, a survey of midterm voters.
But Cooper said he doubts that is a mantle Romney wants to take on, at least not right away. After serving as governor of Massachusetts, Romney will be focused on proving he is an advocate for Utah, Cooper said.
"I think that's where his head will be at the outset," Cooper said.
Sasse has frequently criticized Trump for what he considers the president's uncivil rhetoric. Sasse has also said he "regularly" considers leaving his party and becoming an Independent. He is up for re-election in 2020 and has said he will decide by the summer whether to seek a second term. It would be tricky terrain for Sasse to publicly battle with Trump, who won the state in 2016 by 25 percentage points.
Senate Republicans chafe at the notion they are unwilling to take on a president whose statements and policy positions often run counter to traditional conservative positions.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said he raised his concerns about trade policy privately with the president.
"I want results, instead of hardening positions," Rounds said.
Rounds said he rode with Trump after meeting him at the airport when the president visited South Dakota during the midterm election season, telling him the state's soybean farmers were facing losses of some $500 million because of retaliatory tariffs. He said Trump told him: "We're going to have a better deal for them. If they hang with me, we're going to make this better."
Rounds said his job is to make things better and "that doesn't mean I have to be out there in front fighting with someone."
Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said "there's all sorts of active disagreements that go on" with the White House behind the scenes.
"I support the president as well as anybody. Behind closed doors, there are things on tariffs and things like that where we've offered a differing opinion. But I support this president in terms of what he's trying to do. This agenda is working," Perdue said, citing strong economic growth and low unemployment.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he suspects the 2020 elections will prompt more Republican senators to confront Trump when they disagree with him, and that might already be happening, citing recent actions on Saudi Arabia.
The Senate passed a measure that blamed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and called on Riyadh to "ensure appropriate accountability." Senators also passed a separate measure calling for the end of U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The resolutions showed senators seeking to assert oversight of Trump administration foreign policy and the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
"Almost half of their caucus is up for re-election. They just saw what happened in 2018," Durbin said of Republicans, who lost the House majority to Democrats. "I think, once they do polling back home, not all of them, but many of them will find that independence is being rewarded."
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