If any further demonstrations were needed as to how Donald Trump keeps the Republican congressional caucus in line, it was on display Thursday. Following Gen. James Mattis’s blistering attack on the president in The Atlantic, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was one of the few congressional Republicans to speak out. The president returned fire with a salvo of tweets that targeted both the former secretary of defense and the senator.
In his op-ed, Mattis called the president deliberately divisive and scathingly criticized him for using the military to violate the rights of protesters and for making “a mockery of our Constitution.” The focus of Mattis’s critique was the president’s plan to invoke the Insurrection Act to pressure state governments into cracking down on rioters.
Most Republicans took the criticism in stride. Even frequent critics of the president such as Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) went quiet. When asked about Mattis, Rob Portman (R-Ohio) memorably replied, “I’m late for lunch.” Murkowski and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) were two of the only sitting Republicans to applaud Mattis’ statement and offer their own criticism of the president.
“When I saw Gen. Mattis’ comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we are getting to a point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up,” Murkowski said, quoted by NBC News. “And so I’m working as one individual to form the right words, knowing that these words really matter so I appreciate General Mattis’ comments.”
Separately, Murkowski waffled on whether to endorse Trump’s re-election, saying, “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.”
She added, “I think right now, as we are all struggling to find ways to express the words that need to be expressed appropriately, questions about who I’m going to vote for or not going to vote for, I think, are distracting at the moment. I know people might think that’s a dodge, but I think there are important conversations that we need to have as an American people among ourselves about where we are right now.”
Romney called Mattis’ words “stunning and powerful.”
President Trump swiftly retaliated in the war of words. On Twitter, the president claimed to have fired Mattis. In the real world, Mattis resigned in December 2018 after the president threatened to abandon America’s Kurdish allies. Mattis’ resignation letter is a classic example of how to deliver backhanded insults and damn with faint praise.
President Trump also brought his Twitter guns to bear on Sen. Murkowski, who has a 74 percent Trump rating from FiveThirtyEight, indicating that she has voted with the president three-quarters of the time. This includes her vote to acquit the president during impeachment.
Trump’s all-or-nothing response is nothing new but does illustrate why so few Republicans are willing to cross him. In Donald Trump’s Republican Party, any disloyalty and deviation from the president’s position is swiftly and harshly punished.
That Republicans understand that Trump’s behavior is problematic is evident by how few of them are willing to go on record defending him. That Trump is still enormously popular in the Republican Party is evident by how few will go on record criticizing him. No one wants to be the subject of the attacks that Trump has launched on Mattis, Murkowski, Romney, and numerous others.
Trump’s threat against Murkowski may be an empty one. The Alaska senator was re-elected in 2016. That means that she is not up for election until 2022, when Donald Trump might well be a private citizen with little influence in the Republican Party.
Other Republicans are not so lucky. Many Republicans in both the House and the Senate are facing tough races this year. Recent polling suggests that Republican control of the Senate could be in jeopardy.
Those congressional Republicans are between a rock and a hard place. Even though President Trump’s overall approval is at an average of 42 percent, his approval among Republicans is at 82 percent. Republican candidates don’t want to anger Trump’s base but they also don’t want to anger moderate and independent voters. The resulting strategy is something akin to an ostrich sticking its head into the sand and pretending to see nothing happening around it.
The rub is that only 23 of 53 Republican senators are up for re-election. Why aren’t the other 28 condemning Trump’s bad behavior in additon to Murkowski and Romney?
Contrary to Murkowski’s hopes that Republicans can be honest with their concerns and speak the courage of their convictions, it is apparent that most Republicans do not currently possess such honesty and courage. It is unlikely that they will do so until after Donald Trump rides off into the sunset.