Senior Republicans are becoming more emboldened in speaking out against President Trump, giving voice to the growing frustrations in the party over his tenure. But the floodgates of criticism are far from open.
Many political observers say the fierce loyalty that Trump enjoys among the party grassroots remains a powerful disincentive for Republican figures to question him publicly.
“An awful lot of Republicans have been uncomfortable with Trump but for a variety of reasons — some of them understandable — they have wanted to hold their fire,” said Peter Wehner, a Republican who served in the administrations of the previous three GOP presidents but is a longtime critic of Trump.
Behind the scenes, Wehner added, “every day and every month that passes, it becomes clearer and clearer what we are dealing with.”
Former President George W. Bush entered the political fray this week with a speech that never mentioned Trump by name, but was widely interpreted as a shot across his bow.
Bush spoke out against political discourse “degraded by casual cruelty” and expressed concern about “nationalism distorted into nativism” — echoing frequent lines of attack against the president.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) adopted a similar approach as he received an award from former Vice President Biden in Philadelphia on Monday. McCain lambasted what he termed “half-baked spurious nationalism” and warned that “we will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
Meanwhile, the White House is still smarting over its tussle with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). Trump tweeted that the Tennessee senator had “begged” him for an endorsement. Corker shot back by comparing the White House to an “adult day care center.”
There is no real doubt that the three party grandees are expressing feelings that are often heard when Washington Republicans speak in private.
But Bush is retired, Corker is retiring, and McCain is battling a grave health issue.
The reluctance of others who are facing into competitive fights to go into the arena against Trump is notable. And it makes even strong critics of the president believe he can hold the line against GOP dissenters for the moment.
The president’s approval rating with the general public is at 39.4 percent in the RealClearPolitics average — historically bad for a commander-in-chief at such an early stage of his administration.
But among Republicans, Trump’s approval rating hovers around 80 percent in most polls. That means Republican lawmakers who are seeking reelection need to think twice before crossing him.
Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, has been one of the few willing to do so. Flake penned a book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” that is deeply critical of Trump.
“Never has a party so quickly or so easily abandoned its principles as my party did during the 2016 campaign,” Flake wrote.
But the senator is in deep trouble in his home state, where he is seeking reelection next year.
A pro-Trump primary challenger, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, has been running ahead of him in some polls. Flake’s approval rating in one Arizona poll during the summer was just 18 percent.
“Flake is kind of the exception that proves the rule right now,” said Dan Judy, a GOP consultant whose firm worked with the 2016 primary campaign of Trump rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla).
Referring to the reluctance of others to speak out, Judy added:
“There is a very simple reason: Donald Trump is very popular among Republicans. Yes, there is a subset of Republicans among whom he is not popular. But among his supporters, which is anywhere between 50 percent to two-thirds of the party, he has something like a 90 percent approval rating. Republicans are going to need those voters in their corner if they have a chance to win.”
The White House has sometimes hit back at critics with ferocity. Trump disparaged Corker as “Liddle Bob Corker” in one tweet when the contretemps between the two was at its most intense.
Some observers believed the pushback against Corker was intending to signal a warning to other Republicans who might be tempted to go public with their criticisms. Others saw it as a typically impulsive move.
Trump warned McCain earlier this week to “be careful” because he might “fight back.”
But asked about the implied criticisms by former President Bush, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders adopted a more restrained tone at Friday’s media briefing.
“Our understanding is that those comments were not directed towards the president,” she said.