House Republican: 'It's easy to be bold when you're not coming back'

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has become increasingly unrestrained in his criticisms of Donald Trump's presidency. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who leads the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, told the Associated Press he's unimpressed:

"It's easy to be bold when you're not coming back."

The quote is in reference to the fact that Corker will retire from the Senate at the end of this Congress, which in turn means he's unencumbered by traditional political constraints. It's all quite straightforward: it's tough to pressure an official who doesn't want or need anything from his party or its leaders, and lawmakers who need not worry about voters' attitudes can say and do as they please.

But Meadows' quote doesn't do anyone in the Republican Party any favors. He made it sound as if rank-and-file GOP members can't be bold, even if they want to be, because they must remain principally focused on their re-election prospects, instead of their principles.

The North Carolina congressman later clarified that he also believes Corker's criticisms are without merit. Given Meadows' ideology and political perspective, that's very easy to believe.

But even if Meadows deserves the benefit of the doubt about the intended meaning of the sentiment, we know with some certainty that many of his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill bite their tongue -- choosing not to be "bold" -- when it comes to this White House because they lack the freedom Corker enjoys by virtue of his looming retirement.

Indeed, Corker admitted as much to the New York Times, saying in reference to Trump, "Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we're dealing with here." The Atlantic's James Fallows raised a related point:

I am hardly the best-sourced figure on partisan politics in general and Republican officialdom in particular.... But even I have heard, first-hand, from Republican senators, representatives, and other dignitaries that they view Donald Trump as a menace in his current role. It's not (just) that they disagree with some of what he does.It's that they consider him intellectually unaware of the cliffs toward which he is steering the country, and temperamentally unable to exercise anything like mature judgment. In these and other ways, including his personal and financial ethics, they know that he is outside the range of suitability to hold this job.

Talk to enough White House reporters and you realize that there's plenty of similar rhetoric coming from some of the officials who work directly with Trump on a regular basis.

To use Meadows' framing, none of them, have the luxury of being "bold."

As striking as this is, let's not overlook the significance of the dynamic. I sometimes see folks ask, "When are Republicans going to wake up and recognize the dangers of Donald Trump's presidency?" There's ample evidence this is the wrong question: Republicans aren't oblivious to the problem at all. Most of them know full well Trump is woefully unfit for the office; they just don't think they can get away with saying so.

Given a choice between candidly telling the public the truth about this president and protecting their careers, Republicans en masse prioritize the latter over the former.

Yes, there are occasional hints of exceptions. Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has gone further than most in speaking his mind. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson apparently told a room full of people recently that Trump is a "f***ing moron." John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has occasionally rebuked the White House in notable ways.

But these isolated examples only shine a light on the broader question: what would other Republicans say about Trump if they had more courage and were more determined not to be complicit in the president's dangerous antics?