WHITE HOUSE —
The White House and the Senate majority leader on Tuesday tried to cement over widening cracks in their governing Republican Party.
The most prominent new fissure came on the Senate floor when Jeff Flake of Arizona slammed the president's behavior and announced he would not run for re-election next year.
Flake, a first-term senator, who previously served 12 years in the House of Representatives, said it is "profoundly misguided" to "stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters [the length of a Twitter message]."
Return to decency?
Flake said the Republican Party had fooled itself long enough that Trump would return to decency.
The unusually fierce attack by a sitting senator on a president from his own party came just hours as Trump tangled on Twitter with another Republican senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Corker, who has also decided not to run again for the U.S Senate where he has served for a decade, said the president's staff had asked him to intervene when Trump was "getting ready to do something that was really off the tracks."
Corker said, "someone of this mentality as president of the United States is something that is I think debasing to our country."
Trump on Tuesday renewed his social media attack on Corker, calling him the "incompetent head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee" who would not be able to get elected "dog catcher."
Corker responded with a tweet of his own: "Same untruths from an utterly untruthful president. #AlertTheDaycareStaff"
During the time between the online insults exchanged with Corker and Flake's surprise speech, the president made a rare trip to the Capitol to have lunch with Republican senators in an attempt to boost support for tax reform and other policy priorities.
Trump, on Twitter, said most of the Republican senators "are great people who want big Tax Cuts and success for U.S." noting he received "multiple standing ovations" during the meeting.
McConnell stands clear
Afterward the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, refused to be drawn into the chasm.
"If there's anything that unites Republicans, it's tax reform," he told reporters. "We're going to concentrate on what our agenda is and not any of these other distractions."
The Republicans enjoy a 52-48 majority in the Senate, but several other Republican senators — for various reasons — have also wavered on backing Trump on major issues such as health care reform and may also do so on tax policy, according to political observers.
There was no attempt from the White House briefing room podium in the afternoon to try to assuage Flake and Corker.
"It's probably a good move," Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of Flake's decision not to run again. And she accused Corker of "grandstanding on TV," rather than getting on board with the president's political agenda.
The pro-Trump Great America Alliance is hailing the Arizona senator's announcement as a "monumental win for the entire Trump movement and should serve as another warning shot to the failed Republican establishment that backed Flake and others like them that their time is up."
Populist wing takes control
What today's developments make clear is the Trump populist wing, "equivalent to the radical right in Europe," has now taken control of the party from the establishment Republicans, according to David Lublin, a professor of government at American University.
Flake's speech, he contends, "raises the specter of impeachment" if the opposition Democrats can gain control of the House of Representatives next year because "it directly attacks him for his anti-democratic behavior."
"At this point the question is less a crippled presidency than a crippled country … unable to manage our foreign alliances" as the United States is now viewed under President Trump as a "less reliable partner," Lublin tells VOA.
Flake made reference to this in his speech, saying "despotism loves a vacuum. And our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership."
On the brink?
Corker had earlier said Trump's hostile rhetoric on North Korea and others could lead to World War III and suggested the president leave foreign policy "to the professionals."
The White House takes umbrage with those characterizations.
History will look at Trump "as somebody who helped defeat ISIS, who built an economy that was stronger than it's been in several decades, who brought unemployment to a 16-year low, who's created over 1.7 million jobs since being elected," Sanders told reporters Tuesday.
"I think those are the things that people actually care about, not some petty comments from Senator Corker and Senator Flake."