Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Only standing up to Donald Trump when it’s safe to do so isn’t good enough

In this photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is met by reporters as he arrives at the Senate where the Republican health care bill collapsed last week due to opposition within the GOP ranks, on Capitol Hill Washington. Today, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, President Donald Trump is lashing out at Bob Corker as 'Liddle Bob Corker,' continuing a feud with the Tennessee senator who called the White House and 'adult day care center' and warned Trump could put the nation on the path toward World War III. Stepping cautiously, fellow Republicans senators are avoiding taking sides in the dispute but calling on both sides to cool it down. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, arrived on Capitol Hill on August 1.

Over the weekend, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee articulated what is almost certainly the consensus opinion in Washington about Donald Trump — that he’s grossly unfit to hold the nation’s highest elected office and that he represents a clear and present danger to the country.

“Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here,” Corker told the New York Times on Sunday. “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.”

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Corker added, “He concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation,” and also warned that Trump was putting the nation on the path to World War III.

This comes on the heels of Corker’s comments in August chastising the president’s post-Charlottesville statement and openly questioning his competence to be commander-in-chief.

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None of this should come as a surprise. It’s been obvious for months now that Trump is unstable, volatile, and putting the nation’s security at risk with his irresponsible statements and behavior. Democrats and media commentators have been saying this for months. What’s truly surprising is that Corker has waited so long to say it.

Indeed, up until a few weeks ago, Corker had been, like so many other Senate Republicans, a loyal supporter of the president. In the Senate he’s voted with Trump nearly 90 percent of the time. He’s supported Trump’s Cabinet picks, and he’s generally been a water carrier for the president.

Back during the 2016 campaign, Corker repeatedly — and some might argue, decisively — gave Trump crucial political cover. Viewed as a respected voice on foreign policy, Corker appeared repeatedly on cable news networks to praise Trump for challenging the foreign policy establishment, of which Corker is a member. In fact, in May of 2016 Corker urged so-called Never Trump Republicans to “chill and let the campaign evolve a little bit and see where the candidate ends up.” As a well-respected member of the Senate and a voice of the party establishment, Corker’s words of support for Trump were integral in helping to undercut those voices in the party who were warning of the potential dangers of a Trump presidency.

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And when the campaign and candidate turned into a president and White House mired in chaos and undercutting decades of US foreign policy, Corker largely remained silent.

In short, Corker has been among Trump’s key enablers.

So what changed in the past few weeks that caused Corker to directly criticize the president and question his fitness for office? The answer is both breathtakingly cynical and not one bit surprising: Corker decided not to seek reelection in 2018. Since he no longer needed to assuage Trump’s base of voters — and he no longer needed the president to be a political ally if he did seek reelection — Corker became liberated.

But make no mistake, in this context, “liberated” is just a generous way of saying he had nothing left to lose.

It’s impossible to imagine that Corker suddenly began doubting Trump’s fitness for office and worried about his temperament to be president at the exact same moment that he decided to hang up his political spurs. Rather, Corker made a conscious decision to remain silent about his concerns regarding Trump and only spoke up when he no longer faced the same sort of political risks.

Corker’s reversal is emblematic of how we’ve gotten to this point as a country. Republicans, one after another, have fallen in line behind Trump and kept their concerns about his fitness to themselves. Indeed, even as Trump has predictably assailed Corker on Twitter, calling him “Liddle’ Bob Corker” no Senate Republicans have rushed to defend their colleague or blasted Trump’s increasingly unstable behavior.

Instead they’ve followed the same course of action that Corker followed until he decided not to seek reelection: they don’t want to get involved and don’t want to put their political standing at risk.

And to be clear, there’s little evidence that Corker is planning to follow up his strong words with action. A Senator as worried as Corker claims to be about Trump’s fitness has the standing, the platform, and the legislative tools at his disposal to do something about it. Will Corker? Or will he be content just giving an interview in which he makes his concerns known?

What about the rest of official Washington? There are probably 40 to 50 more Senate Republicans, hundreds of members of Congress, and dozens of White House aides who likely feel the same way as Corker about the danger Trump represents. Will they continue to sit on their hands and do nothing? If, as Robert F. Kennedy used to say, “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality,” what is the fate awaiting those who continue to put their political and professional advancement ahead of what is best for the country?

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.
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