On a day when President Donald Trump went after one GOP senator and another announced his retirement while accusing his party of failing to stand up to the president, most Senate Republicans said the circus-like atmosphere was not distracting them from their legislative agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell smiled as he dismissed the notion that Trump’s feud with a respected member of his caucus is keeping members from doing their work. So, too, did Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican involved in an escalating war of words with Trump.
And that was before Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a consistent critic of Trump, announced he would not run for re-election in 2018, saying on the floor that his party was complicit in allowing Trump to run roughshod over political and moral norms.
“Reckless … outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused as telling it like it is, when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified. When such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy,” Flake said just moments after the Senate GOP’s closed-door lunch with the president in the Capitol.
The majority of Republican senators emerged from the lunch with Trump all smiles, essentially saying all was well with GOP-Trump relations. They described Trump’s message — just hours after he harshly attacked Corker on Twitter — as “upbeat” and “positive,” stressing their shared legislative agenda has not changed.
“I don’t have any observation about that,” McConnell said about the Corker-Trump rift. “We’re here to try to accomplish things for the American people. We’re all on the same page on the issues that I’ve mentioned, and, of course, front and center is comprehensive tax reform.”
McConnell grinned when reporters asked him to address the news that, at that point, was fueling the day — the Corker-Trump quarrel — and reminded him that the president has also aimed choice words at the majority leader in recent weeks.
“Look, I don’t know how many times I have to say the same thing,” McConnell said. “A lot of noise out there. We have a First Amendment in this country, everybody gets to express themselves, but what we’re concentrating on is the agenda the American people need.”
Around the same time, Corker maneuvered slowly toward the Dirksen-Hart subway line through a thick scrum of journalists. He was asked if he was worried that his ongoing feud with the GOP president could leave his colleagues unable to focus on writing tax, government spending, health care, immigration and other bills.
“Why would it distract my colleagues?” Corker said with a smile, before saying the flap is not affecting Republicans’ work.
Trump did not call him out during the GOP luncheon, even after they spent the morning again trading barbs, Corker also told reporters.
About an hour before the presidential motorcade pulled onto the Capitol grounds, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn declined to weigh in on the escalating rhetorical battle between Trump and Corker.
“We need to stay focused,” the Texas Republican said.
As they trickled out of the lunch meeting, GOP senators insisted they — and the president — are doing just that.
McConnell kept his message fiercely focused on Republican efforts to overhaul the U.S. tax code, blowing off questions about whether public feuds between senators and the president could undercut the agenda.
“There’s great cohesion among Republicans of all persuasions to achieve this goal before the end of the year,” he said of the still-emerging tax bill.
Then Flake went to the floor. “We have fooled ourselves long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner. A return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that,” the Arizona Republican said in a pointed 17-minute speech.
Nevertheless, his colleagues signaled it was all good.
When asked how things went inside the room where members met with Trump, Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe responded succinctly: “It was good.”
“He was very, very enthusiastic and upbeat like I’ve never seen it before,” Inhofe said of the president. “He’s excited to get [a tax bill] done. His message was, ‘Good things are happening.’”
When asked if the president and GOP senators also discussed health care and other policy issues, Inhofe said the session spanned “everything.”
Trump did not make specific demands about a tax measure or a health care bill, Inhofe said. But the president, as he often does in public remarks and tweets, urged them to move all of the above to his desk as quickly as possible, Inhofe added.
Back and forth
Several senators reported the session started out with Trump giving what amounted to a pep talk to his fellow Republicans. But it evolved into a discussion, as several described it.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said he asked the president to handle a number of trade issues with care.
“If you think about the DNA of the Trump voter, trade is a big issue for our folks at home,” Scott said. “I just wanted to ask him to be mindful of that fact and navigate these trade waters as carefully as possible. … He was very responsive and said that his goal is to make sure the American worker of today is better off than they’ve ever been.”
Sen. Steve Daines called it a “great a lunch,” adding, “The president focused on what we’ve accomplished so far — long list — and said, ‘Let’s get going, going forward now on tax reform.’” Daines, though, emphasized they were instructed to call it a tax cut.
“Tax cuts — he emphasized you need to say it’s tax cuts. And it was just very constructive back-and-forth,” the Montana Republican said. “I think there was great anticipation that maybe there’s going to be … a lot of drama, [but that] wasn’t the case.”
Daines ticked off a list of other topics discussed: the opioid crisis, the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group and the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Trump tried to crowdsource whom he should nominate to chair the Federal Reserve when Janet Yellen’s term ends, Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said.
“He was kind of looking for a discussion to occur, but I think most people are kind of following what his lead is,” he said.
Rounds said Trump was seeking input on whom Republicans support the most out of the current candidates, but noted that GOP senators were split. Some, he said, even suggested new individuals for the position who are not currently under consideration.
“When the president makes his decision,” Rounds said, “I think it will all be OK.”
While the aftermath of the meeting turned up few fireworks aside from Flake’s, it was preceded by some memorable moments.
There was Trump and Corker trading barbs on television and Twitter. There was North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis’ office tweeting a photo of him scooping popcorn into a box to take to the lunch.
And there was the protester who shouted “Trump is treason” and threw Russian flags toward Trump from inside a press pen as the president walked with McConnell through the Capitol. The protester was immediately detained by police.
But perhaps the best example of the chaotic and sometimes surreal scene came as Corker left the meeting room. A reporter, referencing Corker’s rocky relations with the president, asked him, “Did you make up?”
Rema Rahman, Niels Lesniewski, Joe Williams and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.