Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., ripped into President Donald Trump on a wide range of issues, telling a group of constituents in a private call earlier this year that the president "sells out our allies," "kisses dictators' butts," "mocks evangelicals" behind their backs and mistreats women.
In the call — a recording of which was released Thursday by the right-leaning Washington Examiner — Sasse also said Trump had "flirted with white supremacists" and "ignored" the coronavirus as his family "treated the presidency like a business opportunity."
While it was unclear when the call took place, Sasses's critique of Trump's pandemic response indicated it likely happened several months into this year.
Sasse — at times among the more vocal of Trump's Republican critics — is up for re-election in November, but he does not face a serious challenge in deep-red Nebraska. His name has been floated as a possible presidential candidate in 2024, and the thrust of his criticism on the call was aimed at regaining the reins of the GOP before Trump costs Republicans the Senate.
The broadside, which lasted 10 minutes, was triggered when a woman asked the senator to explain his rocky relationship with the president.
"Why do you have to criticize him so much?" she asked.
Sasse began with areas of agreement, one of which was judicial nominations. But he quickly shifted to assail Trump's politics and values as "deficient not just for a Republican but for an American."
"The way he kisses dictators' butts," Sasse said. "I mean, the way he ignores the Uighurs, our literal concentration camps in Xinjiang. Right now, he hasn't lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong-Kongers."
"The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership," he added. "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."
Sasse moved on to the coronavirus, which he said Trump had refused to take seriously "for months," The president treated the situation like "a news cycle by news cycle PR crisis," he added.
Pointing to what he saw as overly critical media outlets, the senator cut Trump a partial break. But he added that "the reality" was that the president had "careened from curb to curb."
"First, he ignored COVID, and then he went into full economic shutdown mode. He was the one who said 10 to 14 days of shutdown would fix this, and that was always wrong," Sasse said. "And so I don't think the way he's led through COVID has been reasonable, or responsible or right."
The senator claimed that these grievances were not out of step with conservative Nebraska voters — "even the Trumpier ones."
"I think people misunderstood the meaning of 2016. Americans don't want reality TV and stupid political obsessions," Sasse said. "I've spent lots of the last year on a campaign bus, and when you listen to Nebraskans, they don't really want more rage tweeting as a new form of entertainment."
"The overwhelming reason that President Trump won in 2016 was simply because Hillary Clinton was literally the most unpopular candidate in the history of polling," he added.
An unbroken continuation of Trumpian politics, Sasse said, would invite the possibility of "a Republican bloodbath in the Senate," which was "the one political question that's most central next month" and all that stood in the way of a "Venezuela-like" future, including "30 or 40 people on the Supreme Court."
"If young people become permanent Democrats because they've just been repulsed by the obsessive nature of our politics, or if women who were willing to still vote with the Republican Party in 2016 decide that they need to turn away from this party permanently in the future, the question won't be why were you so mean to Trump," he added.
Sasse spokesman James Wegmann did not try to walk back any of the senator's comments.
"I don't know how many more times we can shout this: Even though the Beltway is obsessing exclusively about the presidential race, control of the Senate is 10 times more important," Wegmann said in a statement to the Examiner. "The fragile Senate seats that will determine whether Democrats nuke the Senate are the races Ben cares about, the races he's working on and the only races he's talking about."
Ahead of Nebraska's primary, Sasse relaxed his sporadic criticism, in the process earning one of the president's pro forma Twitter endorsements. After securing the nomination, however, the Nebraska Republican stepped back into the ring, critiquing Trump's "weak" decision to pull troops out of Germany and blasting his last-minute attempts to deliver coronavirus relief via executive order this August as "unconstitutional slop."
Trump responded to the latter attack on Twitter.
"RINO Ben Sasse, who needed my support and endorsement in order to get the Republican nomination for Senate from the GREAT State of Nebraska, has, now that he's got it (Thank you President T), gone rogue, again," the president wrote. "This foolishness plays right into the hands of the Radical Left Dems!"
In the future, Sasse told his constituents on the call, voters will look back and wonder why Republicans ever thought that "selling a TV-obsessed narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea."
"It was not a good idea," he declared.