Historians and analysts say President Donald Trump’s call for a sitting United States senator to resign over a dispute about a nominee is unprecedented — yet, White House officials are mum about the provocative move.
Two days after Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the former White House doctor, withdrew his nomination to be Veterans Affairs secretary due in part to allegations from whistleblowers released by Sen. Jon Tester’s office, Trump used a Saturday morning tweet to demand the Montana Democrat leave office. Later that night, he threatened Tester with information he said would end the senator’s political career.
Several senior White House officials who regularly speak with the president were asked for an explanation or summary of the information Trump claims to possess. Those same officials were also asked if the president believes Montana voters have a right to know that information about the Treasure State’s senior senator. But the officials opted to remain silent.
“Allegations made by Senator Jon Tester against Admiral/Doctor Ron Jackson are proving false,” Trump tweeted Saturday, citing a U.S. Secret Service statement saying the agency found no evidence of some of the allegations. The president called the accusations “phony Democrat charges” that have “absolutely devastated the wonderful Jackson family.”
Watch: Trump Defends VA Pick Prior to His Withdrawal, But Says ‘I Wouldn’t Do It’
Then Trump tried to drop the hammer: “Tester should resign.” Later that night, at a campaign rally in Michigan that he used as counterprogramming to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — Trump said Tester used “innuendo” to “destroy” Jackson.
Allegations made by Senator Jon Tester against Admiral/Doctor Ron Jackson are proving false. The Secret Service is unable to confirm (in fact they deny) any of the phony Democrat charges which have absolutely devastated the wonderful Jackson family. Tester should resign. The…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 28, 2018
Jackson withdrew his nomination amid the allegations from whistleblowers, including some released by Tester’s office on April 25, that he was sometimes intoxicated during working hours, crashed a government vehicle, handed out prescription drugs too freely and fostered a hostile work environment.
“I know things about the senator I can say, too,” Trump told the friendly rally crowd in Washington, Michigan. “If I said them, he would never be elected again.”
An extreme tactic?
Presidential historians and longtime Washington hands say Trump’s call for a sitting lawmaker to resign over differences about a Cabinet nominee is an extreme tactic his modern-era predecessors never employed.
“All presidents campaign against the opposite party’s members of Congress in midterm elections. But they rarely, if ever, call on them to resign and/or say that they have negative information about them,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“Of course, Harry Truman ran against Congress as an institution in his ‘Give ’Em Hell’ campaign of 1948,” Perry added. “But as he said on the stump, ‘I don’t give ’em hell. I just tell the truth on ’em, and they think it’s hell!’”
G. William Hoagland, who was an aide to former GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, said “no other president comes to my mind in the last 40 years that publicly asked for a member of Congress to step down — and certainly not to claim they had negative information on the member that would be damaging to the member.”
“Of course, this is not the first time Trump claims he has something but never follows through,” said Hoagland, now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “More importantly, Tester is a pretty solid person, and if he wasn’t for the fact that he is in Charlie Cooks’ ‘Likely Democrat’ win column today, I doubt the president would be even be aware that Montana is a state in the union.”
Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales has a similar forecast of the state of Tester’s re-election bid, putting it in the “Tilts Democratic” column. Experts say it is likely no coincidence Trump and GOP officials quickly pounced on Tester last week, part of a broader effort to keep the House and Senate in their control.
“Nancy Pelosi and her gang, they’ve got to be voted out of office,” Trump said Saturday night, referring to the House minority leader and her caucus, amid a list of analyst predictions of a Democratic wave election in November. “We cannot get complacent.”
The Republican National Committee continued the White House-GOP attacks on Tester on Tuesday, issuing a statement criticizing him as “two-faced Tester.” The Democratic senator earlier this year touted his support for some Trump-backed legislation only to participate in what Trump and Republicans say is a Democratic effort to slow-roll his nominees.
“Despite this façade of bipartisanship, Tester’s history of obstruction and petty politics when it comes to Trump’s nominees and legislative priorities is as clear as Montana’s Big Sky,” the RNC said.
A bully pulpit
Such attacks by a party’s main political arm are nothing new. But from a sitting president?
“The closest I can come is FDR and the ‘Southern purge’ in 1938,” said Riley Russell, also of UVA. “I don’t recall anything similar … on presidents since Jimmy Carter.”
Perry noted the most apt example to the Tester-Trump feud was GOP Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin “calling out” President Dwight D. Eisenhower as part of his anti-Communism campaign.
“But he was of the same party as Ike, and the latter thought that such public criticism, even of a demagogue, would be beneath the dignity of the presidency,” Perry said.
Eisenhower once said he would not engage McCarthy because the senator would benefit from “the publicity that would be generated by a public repudiation by the president, according to author Richard Powers. Eisenhower biographer Herbert Parmet found that Ike once said he would not “get down in the gutter with that guy,” referring to McCarthy.
Six decades later, Perry quipped, “How times have changed.”