Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., castigated President Donald Trump in a telephone town hall with constituents on Wednesday, accusing the president of bungling the response to the coronavirus pandemic, cozying up to dictators and white supremacists, and offending voters so broadly that he might cause a “Republican bloodbath” in the Senate.
In a dire, nine-minute indictment of Trump’s foreign policy and what Sasse called his “deficient” values, the senator said the president had mistreated women and alienated important allies around the globe, been a profligate spender, ignored human rights and treated the pandemic like a “PR crisis.” He predicted that a loss by Trump on Election Day, less than three weeks away, “looks likely,” and said that Republicans would face steep repercussions for having backed him so staunchly over four tumultuous years.
“The debate is not going to be, ‘Ben Sasse, why were you so mean to Donald Trump?’” Sasse said, according to audio obtained by The Washington Examiner and authenticated by The New York Times. “It’s going to be, ‘What the heck were any of us thinking, that selling a TV-obsessed, narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea?’”
“We are staring down the barrel of a blue tsunami,” he added.
Sasse also hinted at more drastic consequences: a “Venezuela style” Supreme Court with dozens of justices installed by ascendant Democrats; an empowered China ruling the Pacific because of Trump’s “weak” policies; and American allies doubting whether they can “trust in U.S. strength and U.S. will.”
Sasse, who is up for reelection on Nov. 3, went public with his concerns at a time when Republicans are increasingly worried that Trump is careening toward a devastating loss in November’s elections that could also cost them the Senate, handing Democrats, who already hold the House, unified control. After years of tolerating the president’s Twitter bullying and disregard for party orthodoxy and basic American norms, their patience appears to be wearing thin.
He spoke to constituents on Wednesday around the same time that senators on the Judiciary Committee were concluding their questioning of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, on Capitol Hill. Sasse, a member of the panel, had lavished praise on Barrett, a favorite of conservatives who would tilt the court decidedly to the right.
Rarely has a split screen better encapsulated the trade-offs congressional Republicans have accepted over four years of Trump’s presidency than a Republican senator exulting over his conservative Supreme Court nominee in one moment and lamenting his norm-shattering behavior — and his party’s willingness to quietly tolerate it — in the next.
Sasse did not exactly try to keep his criticism quiet. James Wegmann, a spokesman who confirmed his comments, said 17,000 Nebraskans had been invited to participate in the call, though it does not appear to have been open to the general public. Sasse’s critique played out after someone on the call asked the senator about his previous criticisms of Trump.
“Like a lot of Nebraskans, I am trying to understand your relationship with the president,” the woman said. “Why do you have to criticize him so much?”
Sasse, a former university president with a doctorate in American history from Yale who styles himself as a principled conservative, has never made a secret of his distaste for Trump. During the 2016 campaign, he compared Trump to David Duke and refused to vote for him. In office, he called Trump’s signature trade war with China “nuts.”
But he had toned down his criticism in recent years, earning a crucial endorsement from the president he once savaged.
The remarks on Wednesday were far more scathing than any others he has made recently, and particularly notable given the tight hold Trump has taken over the Republican Party in his four years as president.
Sasse, 48, began by saying that he had worked hard to develop a “working relationship” with Trump, and even prayed for the president because he is one of “our leaders.” He said he was pleased when Trump adopted traditionally conservative policy stances and nominated conservative judges. And, he added, he understood that some Nebraska voters were “frustrated” with his criticisms of the president.
But the compliments stopped there.
“I’m not at all apologetic for having fought for my values against his in places where I think his are deficient, not just for a Republican but for an American,” Sasse said.
He argued that Trump had “careened from curb to curb” as he sought to respond to a pandemic that has claimed more than 217,000 American lives this year.
“He refused to treat it seriously,” Sasse said. “For months, he treated it like a news-cycle-by-news-cycle PR crisis.”
He added that he did not think Trump’s leadership through the crisis had been “reasonable or responsible, or right.”
The “deficiencies” added up from there.
“The way he kisses dictators’ butts,” Sasse said, listing his reservations about Trump. “I mean, the way he ignores that the Uighurs are in literal concentration camps in Xinjiang right now. He hasn’t lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong Kongers.”
He continued: “The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor.”
Trump “mocks evangelicals behind closed doors,” he added. “His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.”
Each of these things, Sasse predicted, would have consequences, for Republicans and the nation. He sounded particularly alarmed about the potential damage Trump, who supported Democrats for decades as a businessman, could do to the conservative cause in the long term by driving the country “to the left.”
Young people, he said, could “become permanent Democrats because they’ve just been repulsed by the obsessive nature of our politics.” Women, who have abandoned the party in droves, could decide “they need to turn away from this party permanently in the future.”
“I’m now looking at the possibility of a Republican bloodbath in the Senate, and that’s why I’ve never been on the Trump train,” he said. “It’s why I didn’t agree to be on his reelection committee, and it’s why I’m not campaigning for him.”
In a statement, Wegmann did not comment on Sasse’s remarks. He said the senator would remain focused on Senate races.
“I don’t know how many more times we can shout this,” Wegmann said. “Even though the Beltway is obsessing exclusively about the presidential race, control of the Senate is 10 times more important.”
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