When President Donald Trump traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to attend the weekly Senate GOP lunch, there was no shortage of anticipation for the fireworks that would follow. He and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) had spent the morning exchanging bitter jabs, as they have for weeks prior. A protester had greeted the president with screams of “treason” and hurled mini Russian flags. Even the relatively soft-spoken Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) brought a box of popcorn to the luncheon in anticipation of theatrics.
An hour and a half later, there was, well, nothing—at least, not immediately.
The senators left the lunch saying that Trump hadn’t addressed Corker. Corker explained that Trump hadn’t actually addressed policy details at all. There was some talk of tax reform, a border wall and healthcare. But the biggest reveal seemed to be that Trump had consumed two slices of cherry pie and a plate of rice, which he apparently loves.
Rare is it that the lack of news is the news. But on Tuesday, that certainly was the case. Corker chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has publicly warned that the president “debases” the country and is leading the globe to the precipice of World War III. But when his fellow party members had the chance to ask Trump directly about it, they demurred.
“It was a very positive meeting,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said. “No one called anybody an ignorant slut.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), likewise, dismissed talk of a feud with Trump entirely, decrying it as a “personality battle” and a “political circus.”
Instead, everyone who attended the lunch chose to act as if there was no drama at all, as if finding the right corporate tax rate and the ideal combination of fencing and physical wall were the predominant concerns confronting them. Only afterward were they jolted back to reality, when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) (another Republican who Trump has been personally and politically targeting) announced that he was retiring. Once again, it became abundantly clear again that Republicans holding high office see the president as an existential threat.
“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” Flake declared. “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country - the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”
Inside the Senate chamber, nearly every senator—both Republicans and Democrats—gave Flake a standing ovation. Sitting just two seats away from Flake were John McCain (R-AZ) and Corker, who is also retiring at the end of his term in 2018. It appeared that both men were already aware of what Flake was going to say before he rose.
Afterwards, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the chamber had “just witnessed a speech from a very fine man.” McCain called Flake a “man of honor.” But when they had the opportunity to offer these same points to Trump himself, no one took the opportunity.
“The president is going to be furious,” a senior Trump aide tersely messaged The Daily Beast in the middle of Flake’s speech.
During Tuesday’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the news by saying that “we [in the White House] support the American people on this one…[and] I don't think the numbers are in the favor of either of those two senators."
Tuesday’s lunch wasn’t so much an episode of whistling past the graveyard as it was averting one’s eyes as zombies emerged from said graveyard to disembowel and devour the whistling passerby.
Earlier in the morning, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) simply brushed aside Corker’s warnings with a plea to prioritize tax reform. Trump himself strolled into the lunch with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at his side, a senator whom the president has lately gone out of his way to pretend he doesn’t resent when, in reality, both men really do not like one another.
Hours before the lunch started, officials in the White House and on Capitol Hill were preemptively preparing for the meeting to go sideways. It would, after all, hardly be the first time this president has gone to private meetings on Capitol Hill to chastise and threaten fellow Republicans.
“[Trump] is going to do what he is going to do,” another White House official told The Daily Beast early Tuesday. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “He is going to say to [Corker] what he wants to say in the meeting, and we’ll deal with whatever happens on either [side] the way we always do.”
But, in the end, Trump didn’t say much of anything at all. Instead, the meeting included three standing ovations for the president, Republican senators said. Corker didn't say if he too stood. But he dismissed the idea that he could single-handedly jeopardize Trump’s legislative priorities by voting against certain initiatives just out of spite.
“I can’t imagine there’s any senators—maybe there’s one or two, I don’t know who they are—that would vote against something they thought was good policy over some personal issue,” Corker told The Daily Beast. “I certainly would not do that.”
During a press conference shortly thereafter, McConnell and his colleagues also put on their happiest of faces. Had one emerged from hibernation in that very moment, there would have been no indication of ongoing party strains; just a pesky press corps obsessed with feuds and “distractions.”
“There were no fireworks,” Cruz told reporters. “It was a positive and productive conversation all around.”