Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., accused President Donald Trump of "debasing" the country with his "untruths," "name-calling" and "attempted bullying," escalating his criticism of the president and heightening their feud just as Trump arrived on Capitol Hill to meet with GOP senators about tax legislation.
"For young people to be watching, not only here in our country, but around the world, someone of this mentality as president of the United States is something that is I think debasing to our country," said Corker, who spent the morning lambasting Trump in media interviews.
"You would think he would aspire to be the president of the United States and act like a president of the United States. But that's just not going to be the case, apparently," Corker said.
Trump returned fire, insulting "liddle" Corker on Twitter ahead of his visit to the Senate to address Republicans at their weekly policy luncheon. The gathering was billed as a chance for Trump to discuss the GOP's effort to cut taxes, but his back-and-forth with Corker and his penchant for veering from one subject to another could lead to an unpredictable afternoon.
Trump, who did not address reporters after the lunch meeting, arrived on the second floor of the Capitol with McConnell just before 1 p.m. As the two strode side by side down a long hallway, a protester who had made his way into the press area shouted "Trump is treason!" and threw Russian flags in Trump's direction.
The president's feud with Corker lays bare the rising tensions between Trump and congressional Republicans and increases the uncertainty surrounding the GOP's effort to advance tax cuts, its last-ditch attempt at a major policy accomplishment this year.
Trump has sharply criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for failing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Republican senators have also thrown some rhetorical elbows at the president, with McConnell saying that Trump's limited experience in politics gave him "excessive expectations" about how quickly landmark legislation can pass.
Earlier Tuesday, Corker stood by his previous description of the White House as an "adult day-care center" and his comment that Trump's volatility could set the United States on a "path to World War III." He also urged Trump to stop interfering in the debate over tax legislation.
Asked whether he regrets supporting Trump, Corker told CNN he would not do it again.
"The president has great difficulty with the truth on many issues," he said. "He's proven himself unable to rise to the occasion."
Hours earlier, Trump had attacked Corker on Twitter for helping former president Barack Obama "give us the bad Iran Deal." Trump also said Corker changed his plans to run for reelection in 2018 after he declined to endorse him.
In reality, Corker organised opposition to the Iran deal and voted against it. The senator and his top aide have said Trump offered his support for Corker's reelection, and that after Corker announced that he would retire after next year, Trump called asking him to reconsider and to run again.
"Same untruths from an utterly untruthful president," Corker tweeted Tuesday. He added the hashtag #AlertTheDaycareStaff, repeating an earlier description of Trump's White House.
Republican lawmakers had high expectations for Trump's visit to Capitol Hill.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he was "glad" Trump was coming and argued the White House's dispute with Corker will not hinder Republicans' rewrite of the tax code.
"Put this Twitter dispute aside . . . All this stuff you see on a daily basis, Twitter this and Twitter that, forget about it," Ryan told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.
Trump has promised changes to the tax code will not affect tax-deferred retirement plans, the mortgage interest deduction or the deduction for charitable contributions. Republicans like Corker say these promises raise expectations prematurely while making it more difficult for lawmakers to make up the revenue that will be lost to tax cuts.
When Trump addresses the GOP luncheon, "it's important for him to convey to us the things that he thinks are priorities, and not only with respect to the tax bill, but some of the other things that we are currently working on," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican senator.
"I want him to tell us to do our job," said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., a Trump ally who, like the president, has openly voiced his frustration that a handful of Republican senators sank the repeal-and-replace effort. He expected the president would argue that the tax- reform push is "bigger than tax," in that it marked a chance for Republicans to prove they can govern, among other things.
Republicans continue to wrestle with health-care reform, particularly since Trump decided to end federal subsidies to offset lower-income Americans' coverage costs. In response, a bipartisan coalition of senators offered a compromise bill authorising those funds in exchange for giving states broader leeway in regulating coverage under the ACA.
Trump, who phoned Democratic and Republican lawmakers this month to push them to make a deal, has sent mixed signals on the plan, seeming to support it before backing away.
White House officials are now urging Senate Republicans to move the bill to the right by including provisions offering retroactive relief from the ACA's insurance mandates for individuals and certain employers, according to people briefed on the talks.
"The White House has the ball right now," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican who took the lead on negotiating the bipartisan package. "They've made some suggestions publicly about what they'd like to see in the bill. I'm for all of those things. The question is whether they can persuade Democratic senators to agree to that."
But Alexander, who said the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office could release an analysis of the plan as early as Tuesday, wasn't expecting to hear Trump sketch out his latest thinking on the framework during lunch. "I'd like for the president to focus on tax reform," he said.
Others were more eager for Trump to discuss health care.
"I'd like to hear him reinforce the movement to get something done," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who supports the deal Alexander reached with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Is Corker making a case to remove Trump?
Early in this onslaught against Trump, Corker assured us that he considers all of his words carefully. "I don't make comments I haven't thought about," he told ABC News. In other words: He truly believes all this stuff, and he's not just flying off the handle.
Which leads to the next question: If you truly believe all of that, wouldn't you also believe that Trump should be removed from office?
Corker's comments sure seem to be trending in that direction - whether he intends it or not. The senator is describing Trump as an imminent threat to American government and American lives. He's suggesting Trump is damaging American society. He says Trump isn't only failing, but that he's "unable to rise to the occasion." He suggests Trump was ready to do crazy things before Corker intervened and put a stop to it. He's basically arguing that Trump is derelict in his duties as president, or unfit for the office.
Depending upon whom you ask, that could be approaching grounds for impeachment - or the less likely option of removal via the 25th Amendment, in which Trump would be declared unfit by his own Cabinet.
Grounds for impeachment are forever the topic of debate, of course, given that the Constitution requires "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" for removal from office. But those high crimes and misdemeanors need not necessarily be criminal in nature; many scholars believe dereliction of duty is also sufficient, and it's really up to Congress. As Princeton University's Keith E. Wittington wrote in The Post in May:
"Even actions that might never be crimes could be impeachable . . . In 1933, Judge Halsted Ritter's impeachment included the charge that he had continued to practice law in a manner 'calculated to bring his office into disrepute,' violating judicial ethics. Associate Justice Samuel Chase was charged with abusive behavior from the bench, and President Andrew Johnson was charged with firing the Secretary of War in a manner inconsistent with a federal statute.
"Many impeachment efforts have been prompted by behavior seen as inconsistent with the responsibility and reputation of the office. Some individuals are impeached to get them out of office, when their actions threaten the political system's functioning, and they can't be stopped any other way.
"Impeachments also serve a broader function. Congress can use it to reinforce or create new political norms. Even when the impeached official is not convicted and removed from office, the impeachment itself sends others the message that those actions were unacceptable and must not be repeated. When a federal official is destabilising established norms of conduct, Congress may impeach to send a strong signal that such behavior must not become the new normal.
"Even lawful actions, or actions within an officer's authority, can be impeachable offenses. Context is everything. Actions that are ordinary and inoffensive in some circumstances can be extraordinary and threatening in others. Impeachment is not merely for illegal or constitutional actions. It is also a remedy for dereliction of duty and abuse of power."
Some Democrats have argued that previous Trump actions - or inaction - have constituted dereliction of duty, especially when it comes to his reluctance to condemn Russia for its 2016 election interference. Perhaps some of that could be dismissed as overheated partisan rhetoric.
In the case of Corker, though, it's coming from a Republican who was once close to Trump and might be more measured in his comments. Yet he's basically labelling Trump an irredeemable failure who cannot be prevailed upon to perform his job functions. Corker previously said Trump hadn't yet demonstrated the "stability" or "competence" needed to serve; now he's basically saying it's a lost cause.
And whether you think that's a sufficient basis for impeaching and/or removing a president from office, it stands to reason that a politician who believes those things would seek out whatever remedies were available for preventing the things he's warning us about.
It maybe never come to pass - and it likely won't - but Corker's rhetoric here can't help but point in that direction.
- additional reporting Aaron Blake