Meh. I get why this is newsworthy but it needs to be graded on a curve. Any other presidential nominee vowing vengeance on a member of his own party for not supporting him would be a big deal. With Trump, he probably swears revenge on his enemies 15-20 times a day. Maybe more if Steve Bannon’s in the mood to egg him on, which he usually is.
You know how Trump likes to say “two weeks” whenever he’s asked about the timetable for some new initiative? He doesn’t really mean two weeks. It’s just a number he tosses out to placate the questioner and signal that the issue is a priority to him, whether it really is or not. The enemies-list equivalent of that is when he claims he’s going to pony up unfathomable sums to wreck some Republican backbiter in Congress even though the party establishment would revolt if he did. He did it with Ted Cruz and John Kasich last summer, allegedly vowing to start a Super PAC with $20 million in the bank dedicated to ending their careers because neither was supporting him as nominee at the time. Has he in fact started any such Super PAC even though Kasich, at least, continues to be a thorn in his side on matters like health care? Of course not.
I’ll bet, for about three or four months last summer and fall, you could have mentioned the name of any disloyal Republican to Trump and he would have idly replied, “I’m going to spend $10 million to beat him next year.” Same here:
The president has also fumed about Flake, who called on Trump to drop out after the “Access Hollywood” footage surfaced. Backstage, before an Arizona election rally last fall, Trump spoke animatedly about his desire to find a primary challenger to the senator — at one point saying he would put up $10 million toward the anti-Flake effort…
Heller, who announced months before the election that he didn’t intend to support Trump, is also out of favor with the president. The Nevada Republican recently came under attack from a pro-Trump outside group over his refusal to support the Obamacare repeal bill — a move that rankled Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who viewed it as an unnecessary effort to undercut one of his most politically vulnerable members.
Yet Trump has told friends that he loved the anti-Heller blitz, convinced that the senator was trying to use his opposition to the bill for his political gain and that a show of force was needed, said two people familiar with the discussions. When it comes to Flake and Heller, the disdain is personal — three sources familiar with the president’s thinking said Trump believes the senators are determined to undermine him.
Read that quickly and you’ll miss a key detail about when Trump allegedly threatened to send Flake into retirement. It wasn’t recently. It was last fall, before the election and not long after he hatched the same idle fantasy about finishing off Cruz and Kasich politically. At the time Trump had every reason to believe he’d end up losing to Clinton and would have endless opportunities afterward to act on his grudges, although any revenge ploys against Cruz or Flake doubtless would have involved ripping on them regularly on Fox News rather than coughing up his own cash to bankroll a Super PAC. (Why would a guy who earned $2 billion in free media last spring choose to part with any of his own money to destroy an enemy? The cable news nets would have put him on the air to agitate against Cruz and Flake for as long as he wanted.) Now that he’s president, he has to worry about reelection and 50 votes in the Senate. Case in point: Look what happened when Heller complained to him recently about the attack ads being run against him by a Republican group. However much Trump may have privately enjoyed seeing Heller squirm, he backed down and the ads were pulled. In the end, even he can’t justify pursuing a personal grudge against the single most vulnerable Republican senator up for reelection next fall.
Flake’s in almost the same boat as Heller. Unlike Nevada, Arizona did go red last year but not by much — Trump won by 3.5 points. Flake is a bad fit with right-wing populists (he was a member of the Gang of Eight) and could be ripe for a primary challenge by a pro-Trumper if Trump throws his weight behind promoting that challenger. But imagine that political fiasco, a Republican president campaigning against a sitting Republican senator to the delight of Democrats who know it’d be much easier to beat a no-name Republican insurgent than an incumbent. Mitch McConnell would have an aneurysm, just as he freaked out over the anti-Heller attack ads, knowing that Flake’s seat might be the difference between a Senate controlled by him and one controlled by Chuck Schumer. If the House or Senate go blue next fall, Trump’s agenda would be off the rails until 2021 in a best-case scenario. Trying to beat Flake would be completely self-defeating for the White House and Trump knows it. The harshest penalty he’s apt to dish out to pay Flake back for his criticism is staying completely silent about the Arizona race.
If there’s any doubt in your mind about how he’ll end up playing this, I’d remind you how he handled Paul Ryan’s and John McCain’s primary races last summer. There are no two Republican members of Congress Trump fans are more eager to defeat than them; Ryan’s challenger last year, Paul Nehlen, was a cause celebre on Breitbart and other populist sites. When push came to shove, though, Trump did the shrewd, party-unifying thing. And it paid off for him on Election Day. Bigly, as the man might say.