WASHINGTON — For nearly four years, congressional Republicans have ducked and dodged an unending cascade of offensive statements and norm-shattering behavior from President Trump, , and standing quietly by as he abandoned military allies, attacked American institutions, and stirred up racist and nativist fears.
But now, facing grim polling numbers that have imperiled their majority in the Senate, Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to publicly distance themselves from the president.
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska unleashed on Trump in a telephone town hall event with constituents on Wednesday, eviscerating the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and accusing him of “flirting” with dictators and white supremacists and alienating voters so broadly that he might cause a “Republican bloodbath” in the Senate. He was echoing a phrase from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who warned of a “Republican bloodbath of Watergate proportions.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina predicted the president could very well lose the White House.
Even the normally taciturn Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, has been more outspoken than usual in recent days, rejecting Trump’s calls to “go big” on a stimulus bill. Senate Republicans — who have rarely broken with the president on major legislation — are unwilling to vote for the kind of multitrillion-dollar federal aid plan that Trump has suddenly decided would be in his interest to embrace.
Republicans could very well hang onto both the White House and the Senate, and Trump still has a firm grip on the party base, which may be why even some of those known for being most critical of him, like Sasse and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, declined to be interviewed about their concerns.
If some Senate Republicans have written off Trump’s chances of victory, the feeling may be mutual. On Friday, the president issued his latest Twitter attack on Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the most endangered Republican incumbents, apparently unconcerned that he might be further imperiling her chances, along with the party’s hopes of holding onto the Senate.
In a statement on Friday, Romney assailed the president for being unwilling to condemn QAnon, the viral pro-Trump conspiracy movement that the FBI has labeled a domestic terrorism threat, saying the president was “eagerly trading” principles “for the hope of electoral victories.”
Yet Romney and other Republicans who have spoken up to offer dire predictions or expressions of concern about Trump are all sticking with the president on what is likely his final major act before the election: the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite of conservatives, to the Supreme Court.
“He still has enormous, enormous influence — and will for a very long time — over primary voters, and that is what members care about,” said Brendan Buck, a former counselor to the last two Republican House speakers.