PHOENIX — President Donald Trump continues to amp up the pressure on Sen. Jeff Flake, savaging the Arizona Republican on Twitter and holding a private meeting with several of his prospective primary opponents.
Before taking the stage in Phoenix on Tuesday evening for a campaign-style rally, the president huddled backstage with state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham. Both are considering running against Flake, an outspoken critic of the president who recently published an anti-Trump book, “Conscience of a Conservative.”
Trump ripped the Arizona senator during the brief meeting, calling him “the flake,” according to three people who provided an account of the discussion. Trump also discussed the potential for a primary challenge to Flake and told DeWit and Graham, both of whom have aligned with the president, to get back to him about their interest in running.
Also participating in the huddle was Rep. Trent Franks, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus who appeared at the rally. At one point, Franks told the president that either DeWit or Graham would make strong challengers to Flake.
On Wednesday afternoon, Graham’s daughter posted a picture of the backstage meeting on her Instagram account.
White House aides did not respond to a request for comment, nor did a spokesperson for Franks.
Trump attacked Flake during his campaign-style speech Tuesday, though he did not mention the senator by name. The president described the first-term senator as “weak on [the] border, weak on crime.”
“Nobody knows who the hell he is!” Trump added.
Then, on Wednesday morning, the president launched a more explicit attack. “Phoenix crowd last night was amazing — a packed house. I love the Great State of Arizona,” the president tweeted. “Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!”
It was the second time in recent days that Trump had used his Twitter account to pummel the senator. Last week, the president tweeted that Flake was “toxic.”
Trump’s offensive represents a massive break from precedent. It is highly unusual for the president to attack and explore a primary challenge to a member of his own party, let alone one as politically vulnerable as Flake. Prior to Trump’s visit to the state, the White House had met privately with DeWit and Graham and former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who has formally launched a bid against the Arizona senator.
On Tuesday, as the president made his way to Phoenix, he traveled with DeWit on Air Force One.
The White House barrage — and attention to potential primary challengers — has infuriated senior Republicans and further opened a widening rift between congressional GOP leaders and the president. In the days leading up to the Phoenix rally, in anticipation of a Trump-led assault on the senator, a number of Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, released statements promising Flake their full support.
Ward, who attended the Tuesday rally, said the president’s visit had stoked widespread interest in the primary.
“I thought it was great,” she said after Trump concluded his remarks. “I thought what he said about Flake was exactly right.”
The trip is also sure to intensify the search for a Flake opponent. With some Trump supporters unsatisfied with Ward, a controversial figure who lost handily to GOP Sen. John McCain in a 2016 primary challenge, the quest is on for an alternative.
As he made his way to the rally, Don Tapia, a major Republican Party donor and one of Trump’s biggest financial backers in the state, said he didn’t know who he would back in the primary. But he said it wouldn’t be Ward.
“I will not support Kelli Ward,” Tapia said. “You can quote me on that.”
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