Corker 'unburdened,' Trump 'not finished': Inside the Republican feud roiling Washington

Corker: Tillerson not getting support he needs
Corker: Tillerson not getting support he needs

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  • Sen. Bob Corker and President Donald Trump have exchanged public insults
  • Nearly a dozen aides and outside advisers weighed in to CNN on the feud

(CNN)Sen. Bob Corker's willingness to repeatedly drop a verbal hammer on President Donald Trump's fitness for office isn't a strategy likely to spread -- or be appreciated -- by his colleagues on Capitol Hill, several senior Republican aides and outside advisers told CNN.

But that doesn't mean he isn't echoing what many of his fellow Republicans have privately conveyed to colleagues, aides and donors in recent months.
Nearly a dozen aides and outside advisers who spoke to CNN acknowledged that Corker's criticisms rang true, even if airing them publicly created new hurdles for an already complicated legislative calendar. Still, there is no expectation Corker's remarks will open a floodgate of public criticism toward the President.
    "Corker's unburdened," one senior GOP aide said, noting that Corker's decision not to seek re-election next year provides an almost enviable sense of freedom to say what he pleases. "He has space others simply do not right now."
    The ramifications of Corker's blunt and blistering words -- and what they laid bare about the uneasiness inside the Republican conference in both chambers -- may be wide-ranging.
    With a slim majority in the Senate, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have little room to spare when it comes to their push to overhaul the tax code. Corker's perch atop the foreign relations committee gives him wide latitude over Trump's diplomatic nominees and proposals. And given Corker's contention that he was saying what many of his colleagues privately agree with, the level of trust between the two branches of government sitting on opposite sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, already frayed after nine months, will hardly move to a better place.
    While Corker is the only one who can truly speak to his motivations -- and in paragraph after paragraph of a 20-plus minute interview with The New York Times, he certainly didn't hold back -- GOP aides said the sense on Capitol Hill was that he'd simply had enough, not that he was the start of a groundswell.
    While the government was closed for a federal holiday and the Senate out on recess until next week, Republican senators were hardly scrambling to take part in the melee. Requests to dozens of Senate offices for comment on the matter went unanswered. A handful of others provided statements of support for Corker's work in the Senate, but hardly went further. Kaylin Minton, the communications director for Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, noted that the senator knows Trump and Corker "very well."
    "He works with both of them," Minton said. "Senator Corker and the President obviously have differences they need to resolve, but Senator Risch has no intention of getting involved in this matter."
    Corker had put himself on the line for Trump and his administration for months, lending his name, reputation and foreign policy bona fides to the campaign, urging colleagues to give the political newcomer time to adjust to world stage and touting the President's well-regarded foreign policy team. But the Twitter attacks in the form of 140 characters -- specifically those deemed flatly untrue by the veteran lawmaker -- appear to have triggered a full-blown response Corker has been inching toward for weeks in public comments.
    Then there's the inevitable backlash to the backlash by way of the Oval Office.
    "He's not finished with Corker," one administration official said of the President, speaking to CNN on condition of anonymity about internal West Wing discussions.

    'The President is more popular than anyone in Congress'

    The President also has told his advisers that he believes many Republicans will be less willing to speak out against him, particularly those running for reelection in 2018, because they may be unwilling to risk the wrath of Trump voters in their home states.
    "The President is more popular than anyone in Congress," a White House official said, an apparent reference to the overall popularity of the legislative branch on the whole. That's a point Capitol Hill aides willingly concede, if through gritted teeth, and is underscored by the very real support Trump does have in some corners of Capitol Hill, specifically in the House.
    "I think anything that keeps us from keeping our promise to the American people is a distraction, but to date most of the failing to keep our promises falls at the feet of the Senate, not the President," Rep. Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus and has become one of the closest White House allies in Congress, told CNN.
    The reticence for colleagues to follow Corker goes beyond politics.
    For many, it's the policy that allows them to separate how clearly unsettled many are by, say, Trump's Twitter-based North Korea strategy, and his full-throated support of their efforts to pass tax reform based on conservative principles.

    'Keep it together'

    There's an overwhelming sense of "let's just keep it together for tax reform" at the moment, one outside GOP adviser to several senators said. It reflects a dynamic that has been readily apparent, if rarely publicly discussed, since January 20. Trump's judicial picks are universally lauded by the party. His agencies are cutting back on rules and regulations at a pace that thrills most members of Congress. Trump offers the best, and only, chance to achieve legislative goals that have been impossible to achieve for nearly a decade.
    Yet it's on that last area where frustration has been most palpable in recent months, particularly in the wake of yet another failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. When it comes to policy debates, aides make clear the tweets are rarely helpful. The legislative affairs team has appeared to undercut the unified policy goal. In the Senate especially, the disparate political arms of the White House have everyone uneasy and trying to figure out what's true and what isn't.
    "There are a lot of conspiracy theories in our conference right now. None of them may be reality, but the fact they are out there has a serious effect on our guys," another aide said.
    The inability to get something done on health care has rattled donors and the base -- both of which have made clear to sitting lawmakers of their distaste for the efforts so far. It's something that only underscores how crucial the recently launched tax reform effort is as the last best chance for a cornerstone achievement. "Everyone just wants to put their heads down for the next eight weeks and figure out a way to get that done," one aide acknowledged.
    The question on the minds of many, according to aides and advisers, is whether the President will join them -- or let them.
    With the President spending at least part of his Columbus Day at the Trump National Golf Course in Virginia, administration officials were at their desks, trying to measure the political damage inflicted by the unusually pointed weekend exchange between Corker and the President. Two officials told CNN the Corker-Trump fight "is obviously not helpful," but the White House does not believe it's the beginning of a groundswell.
    "It's something we are watching, but we've not been given the sense there are a large number of people following Corker," one official said. "It's obviously not helpful that it's out in the open, but it's also Corker being Corker."
    All of this drama is weighing on many inside the West Wing who believe it's unproductive -- and, to some, anything but presidential. But they concede they've become all too accustomed to it. To be sure, many in his base love how the President is disrupting Washington.

    'It can be a roller coaster'

    Where that disruption runs headlong into problems, however, is on Capitol Hill, where a unified strategy, traditional rollouts and laser-like focus on major legislative agenda items isn't just considered the norm, but the only tested way to accomplish significant achievements.
    While senior Republicans have been happy with Trump's touting of the tax effort in speeches and even a few tweets, the unease about what will happen next is palpable.
    As to why, several sources point to the Oval Office just 48 hours before the unified tax overhaul framework was to be released.
    It was then when Trump threatened to sink the entire process according to several sources with direct knowledge of the events. He wanted the corporate rate cut to 15%. That was his red line for the framework, even after congressional leaders and Trump's top economic aides had agreed that 20% would be the final number.
    It took aides several hours to bring the President back around and get him to a place where he could accept 20%, the sources said. Later in the week he appeared to be trying to brush off the incident, claiming 15% was where he wanted to start for negotiating purposes, with the end game of ending up at 20%. But these sources say very clearly, whatever his motivations, there was a period of time where there appeared to be a legitimate question of whether the framework would survive at all.
    "It can be a roller coaster," one aide said of trying to fashion legislative wins in the Trump era. "But this is the hand we've been dealt."
    On tax reform, the White House still believes senators will decide whether to support the legislation on its merits, not merely as a favor to the President. Republicans also want to be able to point to a legislative accomplishment, the official said, and tax reform is the best chance for some kind of victory.
    "But this will be incredibly difficult," the official said. "We need every vote."
    It's an open question whether the White House will have Corker's.