President Donald Trump will visit Arizona Tuesday for a rally that could turn out to be a significantly newsworthy event. It is possible that during the rally, Trump will announce a pardon of controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been convicted of criminal contempt of court. It is also possible that Trump will announce an endorsement for one of the expected primary challengers to Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.
However, the day began with an ominous sign of the congressional Republican leadership’s growing public frustration with Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has chosen this day to send a not-very-subtle shot across Trump’s bow by releasing a brutal ad attacking Dr. Kelli Ward, who Trump recently praised as a possible primary challenger for Flake.
The background: Trump fires the first warning shots
Of all the things Trump has done to rankle Republican members of Congress, none has chafed the incumbency-obsessed Senate leadership worse than his public attacks on incumbent Republican senators such as Dean Heller (Nev.) and Flake.
Trump first raised eyebrows — and blood pressure readings — during an extraordinarily uncomfortable public exchange with Heller in July. Heller, who is up for re-election in swing state Nevada in 2018, had expressed public reticence over supporting the Better Care Reconciliation Act, a version of an Obamacare “repeal and replace” bill.
During a White House lunch with the GOP Senate caucus, Trump — who was seated next to Heller — predicted that Heller would get with the program because “he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Already, a pro-Trump Super PAC had run attack ads against Heller, which were pulled after McConnell complained to the White House.
With Flake, Trump was even more explicit. Trump tweeted that he was glad that Flake was being subjected to a primary, and even offered an informal endorsement of sorts for one of his likely challengers, Dr. Kelli Ward:
Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
What’s at stake in Arizona for Trump today
As Trump heads to Arizona, he is desperate for a change of subject after a tumultuous week that saw the departure of strategist Steve Bannon, widespread and bipartisan condemnation of the president’s response to Charlottesville, Virginia, and sagging approval numbers in the Midwestern states that carried him to victory.
Trump and his supporters clearly believe that a major source of trouble for Trump has been insufficient loyalty from Republicans on Capitol Hill, and he may wish to send a strong message by rewarding someone (Arpaio) who has shown him loyalty since the beginning of his campaign and attacking a Republican (Flake) who has been perceived as disloyal.
It cannot be a coincidence then, that McConnell chose this day to release this ad attacking “Chemtrail Kelli” — a moniker that was widely credited with torpedoing her failed 2016 primary challenge to Sen. John McCain.
Oh man. A McConnell-allied super PAC is out with an ad dubbing Flake challenger Kelli Ward "Chemtrail Kelli" https://t.co/kFXWGJIuy6
— Lachlan Markay (@lachlan) August 22, 2017
Senate Republicans are itching for a fight with Trump, and that’s bad news
McConnell’s ad is just the latest indication that Senate Republicans are not exactly cowering in fear of political reprisals from Trump and his most loyal supporters.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is also up for re-election in 2018 in a state that Donald Trump won by 21 points, and he publicly broadsided Trump last week without provocation, suggesting that Trump was unstable and incompetent.
Flake and Heller have likewise been defiant about Trump’s attacks, treating them as non-serious threats to their re-election chances.
Heller reportedly joked about the inefficacy of the Trump PAC’s ads to Trump’s face during a capitol luncheon, while Flake made the rounds on television this weekend to publicly declare himself unimpressed with Trump’s threats. The entire scene is already reminiscent of the nadir of George W. Bush’s presidency, when Republicans in Congress seemed actually eager to distance themselves from their Republican president during the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Bush accepted his status as political pariah with good grace and never sought public reprisal against Republicans who attacked him for the sake of their political careers.
Trump, on the other hand, is not George W. Bush. In fact, he is the polar opposite of Bush, at least in terms of temperament. Republicans who attempt to create distance from Trump can expect to find themselves on the receiving end of attempted retribution in spades.
However, this is where Trump’s anemic approval ratings do, in fact, matter to his agenda. Trump often dismisses these polls as irrelevant, and in a certain sense, they are. After all, Trump is going to be president for another 3 1/2 years regardless of what happens.
But in another sense, they matter quite a lot, because they are exactly what has emboldened red state Republicans who are up for re-election next year to defy him. Worse, not only are these red state Republicans willing to defy Trump, they actually seem to be itching for a public fight with him.
Democrats have already proven that they will not work with Trump on anything. Republicans only have an effective three-seat majority in the Senate. In order for Trump to accomplish literally anything on his agenda — including tax reform, infrastructure spending, or trade reform — he needs a totally unified Republican caucus behind him.
And it looks increasingly like any hopes for that are fading into the ether, perhaps forever.