WASHINGTON — A former Republican President. A senior Republican senator with a critical illness. A retiring Republican senator. And now an independent-minded Republican senator who faced a difficult, if not impossible, path to re-election.
George W. Bush. John McCain. Bob Corker. And now Jeff Flake of Arizona, who delivered a stinging inditment of President Trump and his own party on the senate flooor on Tuesday afternoon as he announced that he would not seek another term. His stirring call to arms came minutes after Mr. Trump concluded a private session with Senate Republicans meant to unite them over their shared agenda.
The 4 men represent a new type of freedom caucus, one whose members are free to speak their minds about the president and how they see his words and actions diminishing the United States and its standing in the world without fear of the political backlash from hard-right conservatives.
But who — if anyone — will follow?
Well aware of the mercurial nature of the president, most congressional Republicans are loath to do or say anything that could upset Mr. Trump and risk provoking an early-morning Twitter tirade from the White House when they are trying to delicately piece together a complex tax agreement. One can practically sense Republicans tiptoeing around the Capitol, taking extra care not to awaken the president to their presence in a way that could draw a scolding or rebuke.
They are equally wary of raising the ire of hard-right activists who already had Mr. Flake in their sights, contributing to his decision. Those activists celebrated Mr. Flake’s decision, claiming a Republican scalp.
While Mr. McCain, who is being treated for brain cancer and has spoken bitingly of Mr. Trump in recent weeks, glowingly praised his home-state colleague for his “integrity and honor and decency,” he did not use the Senate floor to second Mr. Flake’s worrisome message of a government and nation at risk. Mr. Flake is popular with his colleagues, and his fellow Republicans quickly noted how sorry they were to hear of his decision. But none joined him publicly in urging Republicans to stand up more defiantly to the president.
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, credited Mr. Flake as a “team player” and man of high principle after Mr. Flake’s speech. But Mr. McConnell quickly turned the Senate floor back to a minor debate over a budget point of order.
It was a jarring transition in a day of political shocks.
In a stunning one-two assault, Mr. Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Mr. Flake took on the president in terms rarely, if ever, heard from members of a sitting president’s party.
Mr. Corker, who has been feuding with the man he once contemplated serving as vice president, accused Mr. Trump of serial lying and debasing the office.
Mr. Flake, who has been a persistent Trump foe since 2016, never mentioned Mr. Trump by name in his remarks. But there was no doubt who he was talking about when he pointed to the “indecency of our discourse” and the “coarseness of our leadership,” and suggested his beloved Republican Party was being complicit in an “alarming and dangerous state of affairs.”
“We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals, we must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country,” Mr. Flake said.
But Mr. Corker, Mr. Flake and Mr. McCain remain the outliers. Mr. Corker’s exceedingly harsh assessment of Mr. Trump — delivered in a series of morning TV interviews in a reasonable, studied tone — and Mr. Flake’s announcement and damning speech bookended what was to be the initial centerpiece of a day on Capitol Hill intended to get lawmakers and the president on the same page with a difficult tax debate looming.
Mr. McConnell left his lunch with Mr. Trump and members of the caucus to emphasize the issues that bind congressional Republicans to Mr. Trump and play down the divisions underscored by Mr. Flake and Mr. Corker.
“There’s a lot of noise out there,” said Mr. McConnell, who made clear what the interests of the party are. “Tax reform is what we are about.”