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What does Flake’s warning about Trump mean for the GOP?

A Twitter battle and a retirement announcement forced a Republican divide further into the public eye on Tuesday. Judy Woodruff gets two views from Brian McGuire, former chief staff for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Chris Buskirk of American Greatness about the Senate departure of Sen. Jeff Flake, whether there’s a deeper party unity over the prospect of passing tax reform and more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two more perspectives now coming from both sides of the Republican divide.

    Brian McGuire, until recently, served as chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He is now a lobbyist. And Chris Buskirk is editor and publisher of the conservative journal American Greatness. He lives in Senator Flake’s home state of Arizona.

    Welcome to both of you. Good to have you back on the program.

    Chris Buskirk, to you first.

    The White House said today that it’s a good thing that Senator Flake isn’t running for reelection. Obviously, they feel that way about Senator Corker. We heard John Thune just say he hates to see Jeff Flake go.

    Which is it?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    It’s a good thing that Senator Flake, I think, came to the realization that he wasn’t going to win his primary next year.

    I think it just clears the way for Kelli Ward, who has been running for that seat, for the primary nomination. It clears the way for her to concentrate on the general election. Jeff Flake was always the most endangered Republican coming up in 2018.

    I think he realized that he was out of step with the Republican base here in Arizona. And it was really a recognition of reality. He wasn’t going to win. And it’s probably a smart thing to step aside and let another Republican take the lead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Brian, what does it mean if Kelli Ward is elected to the Senate to take Jeff Flake’s place?

  • Brian Mcguire:

    I think it’s too early to make statements about Ms. Ward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    She’s a self-described very conservative far-right populist.

  • Brian Mcguire:

    I worked on Senator Flake’s campaign in 2012. I have a lot of respect and admiration for him.

    I think that he made a smart, thoughtful decision today. Everything he does, he does thoughtfully.

    But I think the bigger story here is the fact that Republicans are united in a way behind this president that they haven’t been since potentially the beginning of the year.

    If we weren’t talking about the spats between Senator Flake and the president and other senators, we would be talking about the fact that the president and Republicans in the Senate are as united and as close to a significant dramatic legislative victory as they have been since the beginning of the year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can say that even today, with these very public divides, angry language going back and forth?

  • Brian Mcguire:

    Yes, I think it’s notable, it’s noteworthy that this is happening, but I think the larger story is that Republicans are extremely close to a historic victory on tax reform.

    The passage of the budget last week in the Senate was a huge victory. And we’re extremely close to a big win here on the Republican side. And I think these spats are interesting and notable, but they kind of obscure the larger issue here, which is the party is very united around this agenda.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chris Buskirk, you agree the party is united?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I think, if you’re talking about actual voters, I think the party is united around this agenda.

    With — the trouble that we have had over the past nine months since the inauguration is just getting the elected representatives, particularly the senators, to unite around that agenda.

    I hope that Brian is right that we are going to see the Republicans get a tax package done. I think it’s a heavy lift. I think they can do it. I hope that they can do it. But that’s the frustration that voters have had, which is Republicans have made a lot of promises about what they’re going to do if they get majorities in both houses and the White House, and so far haven’t been able to pass any significant legislation.

    If they’re able to do this, then I think that starts to change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Again, I want to come back to what you said, Brian, about the party being united. You had a Republican Senator with a 93 percent conservative rating today saying the kind of language coming from this president is dangerous for our democracy and that, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, some people need to speak up about it.

    Is this the kind of thing that’s good for the GOP?

  • Brian Mcguire:

    I think Senator Flake views it as his duty to talk about the president’s style. And I think most other Republicans view it as their duty to follow through on the legislative promises they have made to the public.

    And the lion’s share of senators in that conference are focused entirely on that. Another story that I read about today is that there was a huge round of applause at the lunch today when the president spoke. And I think the reason for that is because they do feel good about where they are on the agenda going forward and that they’re uniting in a way that they haven’t previously.

    So I think there is a lot of optimism, in addition to these other interesting spats that are taking place on a probably too frequent basis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of these spats, the president tweeted today. He talked about — Chris Buskirk, he talked about Senator Corker being — he called him liddle — L-I-D-D-L-E — Bob Corker. He said he couldn’t win an election for dogcatcher.

    Is this the kind of thing that a president should be doing in relating to members of Congress, especially members of his own party?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Well, you know, maybe.

    I know I probably am a minority when I say that, but I think, number one, I look at the practical results. Donald Trump did win the presidency, even though everybody was saying, stay off Twitter, stay off Twitter, don’t do this anymore, and he kept doing it and kept winning.

    So there’s the practical aspect. The other part is, is that it just strikes me as odd, ironic, I guess, in a certain way, that somebody like Senator Corker would take to Twitter to criticize the president for his intemperate use of Twitter.

    The irony doesn’t seem to strike Senator Corker. And so if he is going to start a Twitter battle with the president, he knows he’s going to get a response, so it looks — this just seems contrived and provoked to me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Brian, who should be restrained here? Should the president just feel free to write whatever he wants, which is what’s been happening, or would restraint make sense?

    I mean, how do you see that, as somebody who’s worked with the Senate leadership?

  • Brian Mcguire:

    I think everybody is sort of resolved to the — resigned to the fact that the president is going to use Twitter in the way that he has up until now.

    And so I’m not sure that anybody has any high degree of confidence that they are going to be able to change that part of the president’s daily activity.

    But I think that, again, Republicans are working through these fights on a daily basis. And, to me, the second story of the day, the most — second most significant one or most significant, depending on how you look at it, is how united the party is, despite these arguments that flare up when the president gets into these Twitter battles with folks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, so much of what I think the commentary I have been hearing this afternoon since all this sort of burst out into the open, Chris Buskirk, is just about the tone of discourse in the country, and how it’s gotten pretty coarse and pretty rough.

    And I guess, you know, my question to you is, should we just expect to see more of this and is this the new normal?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Yes, this has been the new normal for a long time. I don’t say that with any relish, but I think that’s just the way it is.

    And when people look at Donald Trump, they look at Trump and say, you know, this coarseness, we don’t like it. Well, to me, I think about that and I say, well, this — Donald Trump, in that regard, is a symptom of a problem that’s been going on and growing for a long time.

    He’s not the cause of it. He’s just the first president really to engage in this sort of direct confrontational style that’s very, very common in the culture. Do I wish it was otherwise? Yes, I do. But I think that the people who wish it was otherwise should practice what they preach, rather than sort of getting down in the mud and trying to engage it.

    If you want to change it, just change it by doing it. Change it by being different, rather than simply complaining that somebody else is behaving badly.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    All right, gentlemen, we’re going to have to leave it there.

    Brian McGuire, thank you very much.

    Chris Buskirk, we appreciate it.

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you.

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