GOP Senators’ Latest Trump Tactic: Support the Nominee, Just Not His Foreign Policy
From former presidential candidates like Rubio to elder statesmen Burr and Corker, the latest line on Trump is he’s “evolving.”
It’s an uncomfortable week to be back in session for Senate Republican national security leaders and former campaign rivals of Donald Trump, who are now forced to answer for their inevitable presidential nominee’s controversial foreign policy prescriptions.
Asked whether their support extends to Trump’s calls to bring back torture or pull U.S. support for NATO, in the tradition of elected officials, they rhetorically ducked and weaved.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he stood by his concerns with Trump presiding over the U.S. nuclear codes, but will keep the “unity pledge” he took as a presidential candidate to support the eventual nominee. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr explicitly endorsed Trump, but initially tried to dodge whether he also endorsed his vows to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” saying he doesn’t always agree with everything a Republican president does.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker suggested Trump is “evolving” toward a “more realist” foreign policy. And Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, while reiterating his support for Trump, effectively threw up his hands in frustration over his national security stratagem.
For his part, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking elected Republican, has continued to withhold his support for Trump ahead of a meeting with the presumptive nominee and other GOP leaders on Thursday. “To pretend we’re unified, without actually unifying, then we go into the fall at half-strength,” Ryan said in a Wednesday press conference. “It’s going to take some work.”
Overseas, politicians have a lot more leeway to criticize Trump’s controversial stances, especially on issues that directly affect NATO, or the U.S.-Japan alliance, or Latin American migration. As Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo put it this week, standing next to newly-elected London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has verbally sparred with Trump in recent days: “Mr. Trump is so stupid, my God.”
But in Washington, a number of GOP stalwarts feel compelled to get behind the man who will almost certainly win the nomination, even though his positions have managed to alienate pretty much every Republican heavyweight in the Senate at one point or another.
“I support the nominee — obviously there are disagreements that I have with Donald Trump that are well-known,” McCain told Foreign Policy on Wednesday. The Arizona Republican said Sunday that Trump owes veterans and prisoners of war an apology for saying in July: “I prefer people that weren’t caught.” (That apology hasn’t yet come.)
McCain, himself a former Republican presidential nominee, was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War and tortured for years. Last year, President Barack Obama signed a law co-authored by McCain and Intelligence Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to explicitly ban U.S. use of torture.
Then, along came Trump, who has said he’d kill terrorists’ family members and bring back torture, while waffling on whether he’d flout U.S. and international law to order members of the U.S. military carry out what would amount to war crimes. CIA Director John Brennan responded that his agency won’t use the enhanced interrogation techniques being “bandied about,” including waterboarding, even if ordered by a future president “because this institution needs to endure.”
“I’m not going to get into that; it’s obvious,” McCain continued. Asked what his support communicates — the Arizona senator faces a tough reelection fight — he said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Burr, who also faces the prospect of losing his gavel in his own bid for reelection in North Carolina, told Foreign Policy on Tuesday, “I didn’t say I would support the nominee — I’m supporting Donald Trump.” But he added, “I’m not going to get into what I support or don’t support until he becomes a general election candidate.”
Just before Burr became chairman of the Intelligence Committee, the panel released a summary on the CIA’s interrogation program that had been years in the making. He criticized the the so-called “Torture Report” as a partisan work of “fiction.”
Asked specifically whether he agrees with Trump’s position that the U.S. should bring back torture, he hedged. “Look, I didn’t agree with 100 percent of what [President] George W. Bush proposed, and I’ll pick those places where I disagree and I’ll put my shoulder to the wheel on the things that I do agree on,” he said. Asked again, he continued, “You’d have to define what torture is.” When FP cited Trump’s statement he’d bring back worse than waterboarding, Burr ultimately responded, “I would not support bringing back waterboarding.”
Trump is now in a “free period” as his likely general-election opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, continues to battle Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, Burr said.
“Give him some latitude to do some things, to throw spaghetti on the wall, to actually get out and engage the American people,” he said. “Then we’ll hold him to what he sets as his agenda.”
While not explicitly endorsing Trump, Corker, the Foreign Relations committee chairman known as a bipartisan player, said voters are responding to his “authenticity.” The Tennessee Republican recently sparked veepstakes rumors when he praised Trump’s widely panned recent foreign policy speech.
“When I hear people say never —” Corker told reporters, referring to the “Never Trump” movement — ”I say look, chill … He’s evolving in his policy positions.”
Yet he supported Trump’s position on NATO, the multilateral security alliance that the GOP nominee has slammed for “free-riding” off the U.S. “Every year, I say the same thing,” Corker said. “It is a strong alliance that is important, but for it to remain strong, they really do have to step up.”
On Trump’s campaign, he said, “My sense is the direction they are heading in is a foreign policy that more fully embraces realism, that is more akin to Bush ‘41,” referring to the elder President George H.W. Bush. He said he’s spoken to the candidate on foreign policy several times over the phone. “That is my sense; I could be wrong. I think we’ll see over the course of the next months whether that is the case or not.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the more senior members of the Armed Services Committee, was more frank.
“I’ve seen this every campaign,” he said, adding candidates “say things — not that they’re lies, but they’re trying to get votes.” He added he doesn’t agree with Trump’s positions on NATO or U.S. strategy in Iraq, but continued, “He’ll come around.”
As for whether Trump’s foreign policy positions reflect truly-held views, he said, “I wish I could answer that, I’m not really sure … we’ll just have to wait and see what does change now that he’s the nominee.” He disputed Corker’s term “evolution.”
“A surge of realism,” he said. “How’s that?”
But not all Senate Republicans are buying it.
“I’d like to see it,” grinned Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who’s said he won’t support Trump. “I haven’t yet.”
Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest rival who returned to the Senate for the first time this week since dropping out, implicitly criticized the now-nominee’s foreign policy.
“It is very much my hope that the next president will be a strong commander in chief, will be someone who will stand with our allies, stand with Israel, not withdraw from Europe, not withdraw from the world,” he told Foreign Policy on Wednesday.
As for whether Trump has tempered — or can temper — his controversial national security stances, Cruz said, entering the chamber for one of his first votes in months: “The voters will have to make that determination for themselves.”
This story has been updated.
Photo credit: Johnny Louis / Contributor