WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump couldn’t resist a direct dig on Wednesday at one of his most vocal Republican critics, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, hours after speaking at a campaign rally in the lawmaker’s backyard.
During his wild, hour-plus rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night, which left some commentators wondering about his fitness for office, Trump refrained from singling out either of Arizona’s GOP senators by name while making clear his displeasure with them.
“Please, please Mr. President, don’t mention any names,’” Trump said, paraphrasing his aides. “So I won’t. I won’t. I will not mention any names ― very presidential. Very presidential, isn’t it? And nobody wants me to mention your other senator, who’s weak on the border.”
“Nobody knows who the hell he is,” he added, a clear reference to Flake. “And now, see I haven’t mentioned any names. So now, everybody’s happy.”
Trump had previously emphasized in his speech that the last-ditch GOP bid in late July to repeal the Affordable Care Act had failed by “one vote” ― an obvious reference to Sen. John McCain, who cast the vote that killed the bill.
Flake recently wrote a candid book in which he criticized his party for embracing Trump and argued that GOP lawmakers violated their conservative principles by supporting the bombastic businessman.
Flake, a former House member who won his Senate seat in 2012, also has urged his colleagues to speak out when Trump does or says something out of line, such as when he failed to unambiguously denounce white nationalist groups following the violence they sparked in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month.
Prior to Tuesday’s rally, speculation swirled that Trump would endorse Flake’s opponent in next year’s GOP primary, Kelli Ward. She was praised by T rump earlier this month and attended Tuesday’s rally.
Ward, a little-known former state legislator, has positioned herself as someone who stands entirely with Trump. She has said Arizona doesn’t “have a senator who supports the president at all” ― a shot at Flake, as well as McCain, who’s battling brain cancer.
“It is appalling that we have the House, the Senate, and the White House, and the insider political professionals couldn’t get the job done for the American people,” Ward, a physician, said of the failure to repeal Obamacare.
Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire who has given generously to Trump, has contributed $300,000 to a super PAC backing Ward. The president has also spoken privately of spending as much as $10 million of his own money to defeat Flake.
Trump’s public attacks on a senator of his own party sets up a confrontation with other Senate Republicans, among whom Flake is well-liked. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) have all declared their support for Flake.
It also comes at a time when Republicans face intensifying challenges in Congress ― such as raising the federal debt ceiling and making progress on several of the president’s policy priorities, including tax reform and funding for construction of a border wall.
On Tuesday morning, a super PAC aligned with McConnell released a brutal ad attacking Ward. It referred to her as “Chemtrail Kelli,” a reference to her encouraging in 2014 an anti-government conspiracy theory about “chemtrails.”
“Not conservative. Just crazy ideas,” the ad says of Ward.
Flake told The Los Angeles Times this week he wasn’t worried “at all” about Trump supporting his primary challenger.
“That’s not my realm. That’s somebody else’s. I just ― I’m running my own campaign. It’s going well. And what the president does, that’s his prerogative,” he said.
Still, the lawmaker is widely viewed as one of the most vulnerable GOP senators up for re-election next year. A survey released earlier this month by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed that 61 percent of Arizonans disapprove of Flake’s job performance, while only 18 percent approve.