How Flake and Corker derailed a day of unity in the Senate.

How Flake and Corker Derailed a Day of Unity in the Senate

How Flake and Corker Derailed a Day of Unity in the Senate

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 24 2017 7:10 PM

The Flake and Corker Show

Retiring Republicans derail a Trump show of unity.

Sen. Jeff Flake
Sen. Jeff Flake speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill after announcing he will not seek re-election on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Republicans had a turbulent Tuesday morning. But nothing, they hoped, that a good luncheon couldn’t solve.

Jim Newell Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.

Retiring Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, had gotten into it with the president again, saying Trump would be remembered mostly for “the debasement of our nation.” Republican senators who aren’t yet retiring don’t like it when Corker goes off like this.

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“I don’t want to get involved in that,” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch told reporters Tuesday morning when asked about the latest iteration of the feud. An aide, pleased to hear her frequently freewheeling boss deflect, repeated the senator’s statement loudly so all the reporters could hear it.

A few seconds of silence passed. “We’ve got enough problems,” Sen. Hatch added.

Hatch, like his other deflecting colleagues, was headed into the Tuesday caucus lunch, which this week featured a special guest: President Donald Trump. Reporters were giddy all morning, imagining what sparks might fly when Corker and Trump found themselves in the same private room—a room that also included Trump critics John McCain and Jeff Flake.

Even some Republican senators couldn’t resist the spectacle. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis carried an actual bag of popcorn into the lunch.

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But then something unusual happened: The lunch went smoothly, stayed on topic, and didn’t devolve into the sort of personal fights among Republicans that have, of late, been an hourly occurrence.

Corker and Trump didn’t kiss and make up in the meeting. They didn’t fight, either. They didn’t interact at all. To the dismay of the many, many reporters who dog Corker with questions, he had no hot gossip to share.

“Did you talk with President Trump at all, before or after the luncheon?” one reporter asked. No, he said.

“Senator Cruz said there were no fireworks in the room, do you agree with that?” Yes, he did.

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“Did anything in the lunch surprise you?” Nope.

“What did they feed you at lunch?”

“Something that looked like chicken marsala,” Corker said. “And salad.” He said it tasted fine.

By all accounts, they had achieved something rare in the meeting: a civil discussion of all the issues, with encouragement from the president, and no fisticuffs.

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“The president was very, very helpful, very insightful,” Montana Sen. Steve Daines said. “He had a tremendous command of the facts on numerous issues: tax cuts, health care policy, Dodd-Frank, foreign policy, border security, judges and nominees, rolling back regulations. It was one of better lunches I’ve been to in a long time.”

That collaborative, stress-free existence lasted all of about 20 minutes.

News of Flake’s retirement soon reverberated through the Capitol, after he informed his local newspaper that he had decided not to run for re-election. Within minutes, he was on the Senate floor, delivering a searing, cathartic speech that offered only misery for his fellow senators.

He spoke of his “regret for the compromise of our moral authority—and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs.”

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“It is time,” he said, “for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.”

Flake wasn’t just announcing his retirement or coming clean with his feelings about the president. He was challenging his colleagues to end their “complicity” and “accommodation” in the same breath. So much for that news cycle about how the president and Senate Republicans had a lovely lunch and productive discussions on tax reform, judges, and regulations.

After the speech, Senate Republicans looked as defeated as I’ve seen them since their health care bill failed at 3 a.m. in late July. Most of them credited Flake for being a good man, one who they were sad to be losing, even as they declined to respond to the content of his speech. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, asked what he thought, remained silent for a while and then said that he needed to hop on the elevator to vote before time expired. Cruz’s fellow Texan, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, was asked whether he was confident Republicans could hold Flake’s seat.

“I want to see who the nominee is,” he said. “But sure.”

If there was a Republican who didn’t seem gutted, it was Corker, who now has a fellow (retiring) senator joining him to speak politically perilous truths. Corker was on the Senate floor for Flake’s speech and afterward walked over to speak with him. What did Corker make of roller coaster of a day that had, by 4 o’clock, gone off the rails?

“Well, you know, it’s not over yet,” he said, looking at his watch. “I think something may be happening at 6 o’clock.”

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