Internet users have long been obsessed with a viral cartoon of a dog who is pictured sitting calmly in a chair in the middle of a room. The room is on fire. The dog has a resigned look on its face, and a speech bubble reads: “THIS IS FINE.”
On Tuesday, similar flames were scorching congressional Republicans.
In the Senate, Republicans were hoping to plow ahead with the growing momentum regarding tax reform in a lunch meant to project unity with President Donald Trump on the issue. But just hours before they lunched, Trump’s public battle with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) reached a fever pitch, and later Arizona Republican Jeff Flake’s Senate floor declaration that he would not seek re-election — a fiery speech riddled with blunt criticisms of Trump’s behavior — stole the spotlight.
“Nobody made any negative comments about anything,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) summarized the luncheon. “It was a positive, professional meeting.”
He added, “Nobody called anybody an ignorant slut or anything.”
Feigned normalcy in a political firestorm.
It's a dilemma congressional Republicans face nearly every day. Do they stomach Trump's controversial behavior or confront reality and risk alienating GOP voters?
President Trump has turned the workings of Washington upside down since he took office. He tweets explosive policy announcements with little warning. He threatens casually to withdraw from trade deals that American companies and workers have taken for granted for decades. He picks fights with media outlets and cable news hosts. He has an ever-worsening relationship with Republicans in Congress, who say he doesn't have a good grasp on policy. Partly why he was elected, Trump is anything but normal.
Corker and Flake, neither of whom are running again when their seats come up for reelection in 2018, aren't willing to take it anymore, and they are sounding the alarm bells of reality.
After Trump attacked Corker on Twitter Tuesday morning, the Tennessean unleashed criticism, calling Trump an “utterly untruthful president” and telling CNN he believed Trump’s “debasement of our nation” is what his presidency will be remembered for most.
The back-and-forth featured uniquely intense criticism of Trump — the likes of which are rare among Republican lawmakers, at least when they're speaking on the record.
Observers expected Trump and Corker to clash during the lunchtime meeting. Even North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis was ready for a show, arriving at the Capitol with a bag of popcorn in tow.
Corker told reporters afterward that he didn't speak to the president during the meal, and vice versa. And that nobody else mentioned the messy situation.
Trump encouraged Republicans to pass a tax reform bill in the coming months and made several lighthearted jokes, according to several GOP senators who talked about it afterward.
“We're here to try to accomplish things for the American people. We're all on the same page,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a press conference after the meeting.
“We're going to concentrate on what our agenda is and not any of these other distractions that you all may be interested in,” he answered when pressed on Trump's relationship with the retiring senator.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) also said the meeting was productive, and when he got the chance to talk to Trump, he offered his concerns about Trump's handling of trade deals and urged caution in ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations, which have recently taken a sour turn.
And Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) summed up Senate Republicans' feelings toward Trump after the lunch on MSNBC's “Meet the Press Daily”: “I think most of us in the conference are very comfortable with the direction that this chief executive of our nation and this head of our party wants to take us.”
But as rank-and-file senators spun reporters on just how normal the lunch was, the Arizona Republic broke the news that Flake was joining Corker in opting out of a re-election bid next year — giving him even more freedom to let loose his Trump complaints, too.
And he did just that in a passionate speech on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon not more than an hour after McConnell tried to tamp down the rhetoric.
“We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” Flake said. “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”
“None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal,” Flake added. “We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal.”