Sen. Ben Sasse is firebombing President Trump on key domestic and foreign policy issues, criticism that accelerated in July after the Nebraska Republican had muted their differences leading up to his contested spring primary.
On July 17, Sasse accused Trump of “strategic incompetence” that is “Jimmy Carter-level weak” for floating a military pullout from South Korea amid tensions with China and North Korea. Ten days later, he described negotiations between Congress and the White House on a coronavirus relief package as “Democrats and Trumpers competing to outspend each other.” The very next day, Sasse said Trump’s troop withdrawal from Germany was “weak” and revealed a “lack of strategic understanding.”
The criticism continued Thursday when the senator rapped Trump for suggesting the Nov. 3 general election should be delayed because of looming problems with mail-in voting. This string of zingers amounts to a summer revival of Sasse’s periodic tongue-lashings that date to the beginning of Trump’s term but were put on hiatus after he accepted the president’s endorsement for renomination in Nebraska’s May 12 primary.
Sasse’s office declined to comment for this story.
But his advisers, pointing to actions Sasse took during his primary campaign, reject the notion that the senator censored his criticism of the president in a cynical ploy to maintain the support of his state’s pro-Trump, Republican electorate and defeat primary challenger Matt Innis. Sasse declined Trump’s invitation to become an honorary chairman of his reelection campaign in Nebraska, and he ran a television advertisement on the eve of the primary, highlighting their occasional disagreements.
“He’s ticked off a lot of folks these past six years, from the radical left, to, every now and then, even the president — of his own party,” the voice-over in the spot said, as a picture of Trump, accompanied by a tweet in which the president took a swipe at Sasse, flashed across the screen.
Some Republican primary voters were not amused. The senator bested the underfunded and outmanned Innis but lost seven counties and 25% of the vote to his challenger in the western half of the state, where GOP voters are especially supportive of Trump. To Sasse supporters, the primary results are yet more proof that the senator has never took it easy on the president.
Sasse won his first Senate race in 2014 as a conservative darling, winning a tough primary with the backing of prominent conservative advocacy groups. They trusted Sasse to stick to principles on issues and events that could not be foreseen and might arise in the future.
Two years later, Sasse was in Iowa campaigning against Trump in the Republican presidential primary. The senators said he was there to support any candidate but the man who became the eventual nominee, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz also has lately established some political independence from the White House, possibly in anticipation of mounting a second presidential bid in 2024. Sasse’s opposition to Trump continued in Washington after the inauguration, sparking talk that Sasse might challenge the president in the GOP primary this year.
Sasse opted to run for reelection. But in renewing his sharp denunciations of Trump this summer, at the same time that polls show presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden jumping out to a substantial lead ahead of the president — a move that has not gone unnoticed by Republicans in Nebraska, Sasse has generated national speculation he might run for president in 2024. The senator is not doing anything to downplay such talk — and that’s just fine with some Republicans.
“Ben Sasse is a true conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan,” Republican strategist Jim Dornan said. “When he speaks on an issue, he does it with his heart in the right place.”
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