PHOENIX — President Donald Trump put the Republican Party on notice on Tuesday evening — implicitly attacking two Republican senators on their home turf, threatening a government shutdown over his border wall, and demanding that senators kill the filibuster because it’s impeding his agenda.
In an often-angry speech here that stretched on for well over an hour, the president returned to many of the same targets he went after on the campaign trail. He spent more than a half-hour lambasting the media, which he accused of misrepresenting his comments after the Charlottesville violence. Yet he also turned his weaponry on fellow Republicans, going after Arizona’s two GOP senators, who’ve been a thorn in his side.
Trump did not name Sens. John McCain or Jeff Flake by name in his remarks — he joked that his aides pleaded with him not to mention the senators explicitly — but it was unmistakable who he was talking about. Over and over, Trump noted that Senate Republicans were “one vote away” from passing a bill to repeal Obamacare. The crowd at the Phoenix Convention Center immediately began jeering McCain, a longtime Trump critic who delivered the tie-breaking vote that sank the overhaul bill.
The 80-year-old McCain is being treated for brain cancer.
“Obamacare is a disaster and think, just think, we were just one vote away from victory after seven years of everybody proclaiming, ‘repeal and replace.’ One vote away,” Trump said, shaking his head in deep disappointment. “One vote away. We were one vote away. Think of it. Seven years.”
The president then turned to Flake, who recently published an anti-Trump manifesto, “Conscience of a Conservative.” “And nobody wants me to mention your other senator, who’s weak on the border, weak on crime,” Trump said. “Nobody knows who the hell he is!”
Trump’s attacks on Flake, a vulnerable senator facing reelection in 2018, have infuriated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senior Republicans, who have vowed to defend him. In the days leading up to the rally, several of Flake’s Senate colleagues put out statements defending him, a not-so-subtle warning to the president not to go after the Arizona Republican.
While Trump’s offensive against Flake didn’t go further than that, the senator was on the president’s mind during his daylong trip to the state. The president invited state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who is considering challenging Flake, to fly on Air Force One with him on Tuesday.
Prior to taking the stage, Trump spoke privately with DeWit and former Arizona GOP Chairman Robert Graham, who is also weighing a primary challenge. Joining the group during the backstage conversation, which touched on the Flake primary, was GOP Rep. Trent Franks, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
Trump’s visit to the state is sure to stoke Flake’s political troubles and energize those looking to unseat him. An announced challenger, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, used the event to organize supporters who flooded the convention center. After the speech, Ward greeted backers just outside the exit and proclaimed that the president had given life to the race.
“I thought it was great,” she said. “I thought what he said about Flake was exactly right.”
Trump’s anti-Flake offensive was a rebuke of McConnell, who has promised to protect the incumbent at all costs, and came as tensions between Trump and the congressional wing of the GOP are on the rise. When it comes to Flake or several big-ticket issues on Congress’ to-do list this fall, the president made clear in his speech that he’s in no mood to make nice.
In a return to his top campaign theme, the president thrilled his conservative supporters with another full-throated promise to build a wall along the southern border. With a budget battle looming in September, Trump hinted that he’d be willing to veto any government funding bill that doesn’t include funding for a wall, triggering a federal shutdown.
“If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” he said. “We’re going to have our wall. The American people voted for immigration control. We’re going to get that wall.”
While Trump’s nationalist supporters cheered Trump’s conviction — the wall has been advocated by his former chief strategist Steve Bannon — it faces objections from the more establishment wing of the GOP. Mainstream Republicans worry about the political fallout from a shutdown heading into the 2018 midterms, especially given the dearth of other legislative accomplishments under an all-GOP government so far.
At another point, the president demanded again that the Senate ditch the legislative filibuster, complaining that the 60-vote threshold is impeding his agenda. (The Obamacare repeal legislation needed only 50 votes, though Trump noted that he would like to enact other provisions that require 60 votes.)
Intentional or not, the renewed call was a barb at McConnell, who has repeatedly said the Senate GOP has no appetite for scrapping the filibuster.
“For our friends in the Senate, oh boy. The Senate, we have to get rid of what’s called the filibuster rule,” Trump said. “If we don’t, the Republicans will never get anything passed. Eight Democrats are controlling all of this legislation.”
Trump’s supporters, many of whom interrupted his speech with cries of “Drain the swamp,” ate it all up. As the president lashed Flake, they yelled “flush Flake.” When he bashed McCain, they booed. When he suggested a pardon is on the way for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an immigration hard-liner who was recently convicted of criminal contempt, they yelled “pardon!”
The president insisted he was more restrained than usual. He pointed out that he hadn’t mentioned either senator by name, and suggested that after Monday’s sober-minded speech outlining his military plans in Afghanistan, advisers had urged him to be circumspect about criticizing McCain and Flake.
“See, I haven’t mentioned any names,” he said. “So now everybody’s happy.”
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