The Lonely War of Bob Corker

The retiring senator says most Republicans share his Trump criticism. Too bad they won’t back him up.

Sen. Bob Corker on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 27.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

You don’t need retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker to tell you the president is a madman, that “every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him.” You also don’t need Corker to tell you that the “vast majority of” the Senate Republican caucus “understands what we’re dealing with here,” that they “understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.” The vast majority of the Senate Republican caucus has the same eyes and ears that you do.

And yet it felt refreshing to hear Corker admit it. It would feel even more refreshing to hear more members of that “vast majority,” the ones who aren’t as unshackled as lame-duck Corker, do the same—but this won’t happen anytime soon. For one, what would it do? It wouldn’t serve as a wake-up call to the president to change his ways. Donald Trump does not change. What it could do, though, is ensure that any Republicans who speak up are term-limited after all, involuntarily.

For Steve Bannon, who said on leaving the White House, “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons,” Corker’s comments about the “vast majority” of Senate Republicans were the highlight of his week. He can and will use them as a Trumpist wedge against the Republican “establishment,” which has just become shorthand for moderately well-adjusted Republicans in government. Most voters—those outside the GOP base—would rightly be scared for their country on hearing a Republican senator say that most of his Republican colleagues believe the Republican president is unstable enough to provoke “World War III.” But most voters don’t vote in GOP primaries. And the message Bannon is selling to those who do is that this “vast majority” of senators needs to go.

“This is what they think about President Trump behind closed doors,” Bannon said on Fox News Monday night. “The buried lede was that there’s only two or three senators on Capitol Hill that have President Trump’s back.” And just like that, Bannon converted Corker’s comments into ammunition for his ongoing efforts to primary incumbent senators—a target list, by the way, that has grown to include all Republican senators up for re-election save for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (a funny exemption, given that Cruz once delivered the most vicious attack on Trump that any sitting Republican politician has ever delivered).

This lack of respect for the president, Bannon added, is why congressional Republicans are struggling to pass their agenda. “When you want to talk about why there’s no repeal-and-replace, why there’s no tax cut, why there’s no tax reform, why there’s no infrastructure bill, you saw it right there,” Bannon told Sean Hannity, who was not about to disagree. “Corker, McConnell, and the entire clique—establishment, globalist clique—on Capitol Hill have to go. And if we need any more proof about what [these senators] think, you heard it tonight. It’s an absolute disgrace.”

Until this point, it had never entered my mind that someone could argue with a straight face that the Republican establishment doesn’t really care about tax reform. The Republican establishment Bannon is railing against would crab-walk across a continent of hot coals to cut the corporate tax rate to 20 percent. These senators do, contra Bannon, have Trump’s back, specifically so that they can get that bill signed into law. They put up with Trump so that they can get “Trump’s agenda”—which is more the establishment congressional Republican agenda than anything else—passed.

But Bannon’s interpretation—that the do-nothing Congress isn’t passing stuff because they’re an “establishment, globalist clique” that doesn’t like Trump—is the one that will make the most sense to a lot of Republican primary voters. Corker’s honesty will be twisted to serve Bannon’s ends, which is to replace sitting Republican senators with ones who are loyal to Bannon.

Honesty from sitting Republicans about the danger Trump poses to the country won’t get Trump removed but could well get those sitting Republicans removed. They can’t win.