Last Tuesday, Johnny Isakson spoke with a writer for The Bulwark, a news and opinion website for non-Trumpian conservatives that features disaffected Republicans such as Charlie Sykes and Bill Kristol.
The Georgia senator warned that the next day he would administer the “whipping” he had promised President Donald Trump back in August if he didn’t stop sullying the name of John McCain, his late Senate colleague and Vietnam War hero.
“I want to do what I said that day on the floor of the Senate,” he told The Bulwark. “I just want to lay it on the line, that the country deserves better, the McCain family deserves better,” Isakson said.
“I don’t care if he’s president of United States, owns all the real estate in New York, or is building the greatest immigration system in the world. Nothing is more important than the integrity of the country and those who fought and risked their lives for all of us,” Isakson said. (Note the two compliments contained in the above remarks. More about them later.)
The national press corps was alerted. The beat-down was to take place at 2 p.m. on GPB’s “Political Rewind.”
Isakson arrived at the radio studio on 14th Street in Atlanta a good 20 minutes early, sporting what would have been considered the perfect weapon for carrying out a whuppin’ in 19th century Washington — a red, white and blue cane.
The senator sat down, donned the headphones and lined up his microphone. Host Bill Nigut hit the “go” button: What about Trump’s weekend Tweetstorm slamming John McCain, about his comments to reporters?
“It’s deplorable what he said,” Isakson asserted. “That’s what I called it from the floor of the Senate seven months ago. It will be deplorable seven months from now if he says it again. And I will continue to speak out.”
If one of his own children had ever said that McCain’s stint as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton disqualified him as a true American hero, Isakson said, “they would have a serious conversation with me.”
With that, among his Republican colleagues in the Senate, Isakson can be said to have issued the most forceful, in-person criticism of President Trump for slandering a dead man. And good for him. But was it the promised “whipping”?
Yes and no. It was a thrashing of Donald Trump that would have guaranteed Isakson front-page acreage in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — if it were 1979. But if you were looking for a burn-down-Twitter, melt-Mark-Zuckerberg’s-face kind of drubbing, this wasn’t it.
During his 30 minutes in front of a “Political Rewind” mic, not once did the word “Donald” or “Trump” cross Isakson’s lips. He spoke only of “the president.”
Moreover, Isakson anchored his comments in Trump’s role as commander-in-chief, and his own role as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee — “as one who remembers the Vietnam War and how the country got so torn up, as one who sees the millions, almost, of men who have been deployed in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“We should never reduce the service that people give to this country, including the offering of their own lives, to political fodder,” Isakson said.
But when invited to comment on the topic of Trump’s mental stability — a discussion started last weekend by George Conway, husband of one of Trump’s top aides, Isakson declined. That would be disrespectful of the office, he said.
“I’ve always been an issues guy. I’ve never taken the bait to get down low and just fight in the gutter, because it doesn’t do any good,” the senator said.
In these partisan times, Isakson will have critics who say that his “whipping” of Trump was too gentle by half. And indeed, the senator may have over-advertised his punch.
But those same critics will assert that it makes no sense to expect the current resident of the White House, a 72-year-old, made-for-TV dealmaker, to suddenly turn presidential.
I would argue that it would be equally silly to expect a 74-year-old, proven dealmaker to suddenly turn bomb-thrower. As a member of both the U.S. House and Senate, Isakson has been a most transactional politician — and I mean that as a compliment.
In deals masterminded by Trump, he is the winner only if his rival is left bleeding. Isakson is ever the real estate agent looking for repeat business. If he calls your actions “deplorable” in one breath — an interesting word choice, given its use in 2016 by Hillary Clinton — in the next he will praise your status as an owner of skyscrapers and a master wall-builder.
Earlier this month, Isakson and the rest of the Georgia delegation won a $130 million designation in Trump’s proposed federal budget for the dredging of the Port of Savannah.
Even as he criticizes Trump for his abuse of a dead Vietnam veteran, Isakson is negotiating with the president for a long-delayed disaster aid package to help south Georgia farmers whose livelihoods were torn apart by Hurricane Michael last year. Trump’s aversion to increased aid for Puerto Rico, struck by two devastating hurricanes in 2017, has been an issue.
“I talked to President Trump two weeks ago at the White House, to get him to agree to a level of funding for Puerto Rico that was not what [Democrats] wanted, but was what they needed, in our judgment,” Isakson said.
He expects a deal to be finalized in the Senate at the end of March.
Social media has vastly changed our expectations when it comes to dialogue and engagement. But it’s worth noting that last Tuesday, the day of Isakson's promised “whipping” of a president, was also the 40th anniversary of C-SPAN broadcasts of Congress.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich noted its impact. “C-SPAN gave the minority Republicans the great opportunity to reach Americans without hostile editing,” he wrote in Newsweek.
Others, including Isakson’s former Senate colleague, Saxby Chambliss, have pointed to the unfiltered speeches that resulted as the beginning of Washington’s long spiral into dysfunction.
Isakson’s “whipping” of Trump was from the pre-C-SPAN era. But there’s some evidence that the president felt its sting. On Wednesday afternoon, the president spoke at a tank factory in Lima, Ohio. He denigrated McCain again, this time accusing the Arizona senator of ignoring war veterans. It was the first time Trump had gone in a direction that is also a specialty of the senior senator from Georgia.
Trump’s lips had said “McCain.” But given the timing, it is entirely possible it was Isakson who was in the president’s head.
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