Welcome to President Trump's Washington, where "Republican Lawmaker States the Blindingly Obvious" is front-page news and fodder for days of cable talkfests.
The latest is Sen. Bob Corker, a reliably conservative Republican from Tennessee who, after deciding not to run for re-election, made the fateful decision to be forthright about his feelings about the president. In a New York Times interview chock full of juicy quotes, Corker said he worries that Trump is setting us "on the path to World War III," and that "I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it's a situation of trying to contain him." Perhaps most notably, Corker said he's far from alone:
All but inviting his colleagues to join him in speaking out about the president, Mr. Corker said his concerns about Mr. Trump were shared by nearly every Senate Republican.
"Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we're dealing with here," he said, adding that "of course 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 New York Times]
This came not long after NBC News reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once referred to Trump as a "moron" in a meeting full of people. And while it's certainly important to hear Republicans saying these things, it isn't as though it's some kind of shock. Wait, you mean Trump isn't a brilliant man with perfect impulse control and impeccable judgment? Who knew!
I don't mean to condemn Corker for his sudden bout of candor; it's certainly better than continuing in silence. And as James Fallows points out, Corker has 15 months before his departure from the Senate, and as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, there are many things he can do to act on his concerns, including holding hearings and drafting legislation to make sure Trump is appropriately checked and balanced.
But his words are hardly welcome in a party where everyone has been pretending that the president is something other than a danger to every human being on Earth. "It's easy to be bold when you're not coming back," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the head of the Freedom Caucus, as he criticized Corker's remarks for being inappropriate. That too was a rare (and probably accidental) admission of the obvious: Politicians are cautious and careful, even as every last one of them would swear that they always speak their mind because they're just so darn honest. Only when they don't have to worry about getting re-elected are they finally able to admit that the emperor's clothes are perhaps not quite as splendiferous as they had previously attested.
So let's not forget that the overwhelming majority of these people endorsed the man whom, we are now told, they believe is basically unfit to be president (an opinion shared by 56 percent of Americans in one poll). Forty-one of the 52 Republicans in the Senate endorsed Trump — including Bob Corker, who was happy to be considered to be Trump's secretary of state. Did they just discover that he's ignorant, stupid, impetuous, vindictive, narcissistic, dishonest, and essentially a walking collection of character flaws? Did that come as some sort of surprise to them? Have they been saying to one another, "I thought he'd be such a responsible and wise president — I can't believe it turned out this way!"? Because who he is seemed more than clear when he was running for president and they were standing behind him.
It's not that there's no rational justification for supporting Trump, if you believed that he'd pursue policies you agree with. But there's a difference between saying, "He's unfit to be president, but when he does things I agree with, like seek to cut taxes, I will support him in those things," and saying, "I will support him and defend him in everything so that I can get the tax cuts I want." Only a few Republicans have said the former, but with the exception of an occasional scolding comment over a particularly offensive tweet, most have taken the latter course: defending him against criticism, assuring people of his good intentions and competence, and acting as consistent allies for this most dangerous president.
So every Republican should be asked the kind of questions that Corker's comments have now opened the door to. Here's a few:
1. Is your impression of what goes on in the White House the same as Corker's?
2. Do you believe Donald Trump has shown himself to be fit to hold the office of president?
3. Do you trust him to make life-and-death decisions in a crisis?
4. Do you believe he's sufficiently informed to make wise policy choices?
5. Do you believe he is honest?
6. If you had a child in the armed forces, would you be comfortable putting your child's life in his hands?
We can guess what Republicans will do when they get asked those questions: They'll bolt and run, or say something banal and noncommittal, or change the subject. But at the very least, perhaps we can stop pretending that even among his own party's leaders there are more than a few people not in President Trump's direct employ who actually believe that he is fit, as a matter of intellect, judgment, and character, to be president of the United States.