Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., laid down serious criticisms on President Trump in a recorded call with constituents. “I don’t think the way he’s lead through COVID has been reasonable or responsible, or right.” Sasse further alleged that Trump “kisses dictators’ butts.”  

Sasse also said, “The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticize President Obama for that kind of spending; I’ve criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.” 

The President responded in signature style in multiple tweets

“The least effective of our 53 Republican Senators, and a person who truly doesn’t have what it takes to be great, is Little Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a State which I have gladly done so much to help.”

“@SenSasse was as nice as a RINO can be until he recently won the Republican Nomination to run for a second term. Then he went back to his rather stupid and obnoxious ways. Must feel he can’t lose to a Dem. Little Ben is a liability to the Republican Party, and an embarrassment to the Great State of Nebraska. Other than that, he’s just a wonderful guy!”

Every word Sasse said was accurate, but the President does have a point under his schoolyard bully bluster. Sasse’s timing makes his statement a crass, cynical, craven, and opportunistic move. 

 In 2016, Sasse was a fierce critic of President Trump. Sasse toned down his criticism when the President was elected. He worked to build a good working relationship with Trump but still offered occasionally challenged the President. He actually introduced a bill to require presidential candidates to produce their tax returns in late 2018. 

Sasse chose to run for re-election as a Republican in 2020. To do that, he put himself in the incumbency protection program. He was silent on Trump and on anything GOP base voters wouldn’t want to hear from early 2019 on. He stopped posting on his personal @bensasse Twitter account a year before the primary. 

Then the President attempted to hold up congressionally-approved aid to Ukraine to force them to investigate Joe Biden. That did lead Sasse to warn Republicans against rushing to circle the wagons around Trump. But he did just that himself when the impeachment trial came to the Senate, as he joined fifty other Senate Republicans in ending the trial without calling any witnesses. 

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., came out against calling witnesses. Sasse said, “Let me be clear; Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us.”

Sasse is known as a talented orator and expositor of conservative principles literally became a real-life version of that movie character who follows someone around and echoes their statement with, “Yeah, what he said.”  

This worked out for Sasse as he was renominated with Trump endorsing his re-election campaign. Since then he has flexed his criticizing muscles a couple of times.  There’s no way he’s going to lose even if Trump supporters get annoyed with him since his Democratic opponent could be best described as a hot mess.   

Sasse has tried to walk a tightrope. Sasse never went full MAGA like former critic U.S. Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah. He refused to sign up as a state co-chair of Trump’s re-election, and not even said if he’ll vote for him. At the same time, he’d not crossed Trump in anything important in years. It’s all a very clever balancing act. Too clever by half, if you ask me. 

The brand Sasse projects is as a straight-shooting voice of uncompromising constitutionalism and principle. That’s at odds with his craven and calculating approach to criticizing President Trump. Sasse will be frustrated in his efforts to appear principled in dealing with Trump because someone else has shown how to be principled.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, L-Mich, has many similarities to Sasse. He talks often about the Constitution and complains about how our country should work in accordance with sound civics. Both have complained about the toxic culture of the Capitol that makes actually legislating impossible.  

Amash, unlike Sasse, continued to criticize Trump even when it was politically inconvenient. While Sasse admitted in September 2018 that thinking about leaving the GOP was a regular part of his morning routine, it was Amash who pulled the trigger and left the GOP in July of 2019. Amash is the leader that Sasse pretends to be, maybe the type of leader he wants to be, but not the type he is. 

The attack on Trump screams of opportunism. Would Sasse be launching this attack if Trump were only a point or two down in the polls? I doubt it. As Politico’s Tim Alberta observed, “I’m not saying this is a strategic leak from Sasse’s camp… but if you think Trump is gonna get smoked & you want to rebuild the GOP on a foundation that disowns his presidency, now’s the time to get in on the ground floor. Quotes like these won’t get [the] same notice post-November.” 

I understand the desire to get out in front of other 2024 candidates, but this will leave a bad taste in many mouths. Sasse went after the President as he has been trailing by double digits in many national polls. The analysts at Five Thirty-Eight estimate the President has less than a one in eight chance of re-election. Sasse chose to level withering criticism at the President only when it appears that Trump’s politically mortally wounded. Sasse’s attacks are useful for the President’s opponents, but it doesn’t help him with anyone whose support he’ll need for a probable 2024 campaign.  

It will certainly not help him with the President’s base of supporters. Sasse’s late criticism doesn’t impress hardcore #NeverTrumpers. Reluctant Trumpers from rank and file Republicans will have good reason to be upset.  

Sasse chose to stay in the party and run on the Republican ticket right under the President in Nebraska. While Nebraska’s statewide electors aren’t in doubt, each Congressional district chooses an elector and the Second Congressional district is a toss-up. Sasse’s attacks on the President could help Biden claim that electoral vote. The group Republican Voters Against Trump has already turned Sasse’s words into a savage TV ad airing in the Omaha market. 

 In addition, this won’t do any favors for U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who’s in a battle for his political life in the same district. From a Republican perspective, Sasse chose to play on the Republican team all of this year. Now, when the team is down, he has started kneecapping his own teammates to position himself for the next election. 

Republicans might feel slapped in the face by Amash’s decision to leave the party that (reluctantly) supported him in one state legislative election and five times for Congress. Sasse’s eleventh hour hypocritical grandstanding is much more like a knife in the back. 

For my part, I have more respect for Senators like James Lankford, R-Okla., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., who acknowledge severe disagreements with the President that they don’t talk much about and have not gone insane while tirelessly advocating for him and his re-election. Their actions aren’t noble, but they’re a sight more honest than how Sasse’s conducted himself. Even the typical political hacks like  Alexander and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., acting like hacks are preferable to Sasse’s pretensions of political virtue. 

I wouldn’t bet much on the success of a Sasse presidential run. If he presents himself to voters in 2024, it will be as someone who will have spent ten years in the Senate, and amassed a legislative resume that’s all hat and no cattle.

The only thing that could help is to give an honest account of the way he conducted himself during the Trump years. The late U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wrote a book about his service in the House called Breach of Trust. In that book, he exposed the ways that Republican leadership in the House was unprincipled and dishonest. However, in one chapter, he exposed his own moment of dishonesty and hypocrisy. He cast a vote he knew was wrong on a bill regarding credit unions that was obscure to most Americans. That willingness to his own errors and try to do better was an impressive quality of Coburn that Sasse would do well to emulate. 

If Sasse gave an honest accounting of his record, even those events that were less than heroic, it may open people to giving him a second look. As it is, the last thing America needs is a political leader whose pious political pronouncements are belied by a record of unprincipled political calculation. 

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