President Donald Trump escalated his attack on Sen. Bob Corker on Tuesday by ridiculing him for his height, even as advisers worried that the president was further fracturing his relationship with congressional Republicans just a week before a vote critical to his tax cutting plan.
Trump gave Corker, a two-term Republican from Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a derogatory new nickname "Liddle Bob" after the two exchanged barbs in recent days. He suggested Corker was somehow tricked when he told a reporter from The New York Times that the president was reckless and could stumble into a nuclear war.
"The Failing @nytimes set Liddle' Bob Corker up by recording his conversation," Trump wrote on Twitter. "Was made to sound a fool, and that's what I am dealing with!"
In labeling Corker "liddle," the president was evidently returning to a theme. He considered Corker for secretary of state during the transition after last year's election but was reported to have told associates that Corker, at 5-foot-7, was too short to be the nation's top diplomat. Instead, Trump picked Rex Tillerson, who is several inches taller but whose own relationship with the president has deteriorated to the point that he was said to have called Trump a "moron."
Tillerson initially did not deny it, but later had a spokeswoman insist he did not say it. The president, in an interview with Forbes magazine released on Tuesday, said that even if it were true, he was at least smarter than Tillerson.
"I think it's fake news," he said. "But if he did that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win."
Trump was scheduled to have lunch with Tillerson on Tuesday at the White House, along with Jim Mattis, secretary of defense, who may play mediator. Just before the lunch, Trump told reporters he did not think he had undercut Tillerson with the IQ comment.
"I didn't undercut anybody," he said, sitting next to a former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, whose IQ is generally not questioned. "I don't believe in undercutting people." Asked if he still had confidence in Tillerson, Trump said simply, "Yes."
Trump's gibe at Corker echoed his name-calling during the presidential campaign when he labeled Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., "Little Marco," dubbed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, "Lyin' Ted" and called Hillary Clinton "Crooked Hillary." He has used belittling nicknames to diminish political foes but since taking office has generally avoided doing so with powerful Republican committee chairmen who control appointments and legislation.
It was not clear what Trump meant when he said The Times set up Corker by recording him. After Trump lashed out at the senator Sunday by saying he "didn't have the guts" to run for another term, a Times reporter interviewed Corker by telephone and recorded the call with the senator's knowledge and consent. Corker's staff also recorded the call, and he said he wanted The Times to do the same.
"I know they're recording it, and I hope you are, too," Corker told the reporter.
Corker said in the interview that Trump ran his presidency like "a reality show" and his reckless threats could set the nation "on the path to World War III." Corker said that Trump's staff had to stop him from doing more damage.
"I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it's a situation of trying to contain him," he said.
He added that most Republicans in the Senate shared his concerns.
"Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we're dealing with here," Corker said, adding that "of course they understand the volatility that we're dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road."
Trump on Tuesday rejected the suggestion that he was risking a nuclear war.
"We were on the wrong path before," he said, presumably referring to North Korea. "All you have to do is take a look. If you look over the last 25 years through numerous administrations, we were on a path to a very big problem, a problem like this world has never seen. We're on the right path right now, believe me."
While White House officials bristled at Corker's comments, they also recognized that alienating the senator was fraught at a time when Republicans can afford to lose only two votes on any major issue where Democrats are lock step in opposition. Next week, the Senate plans to vote on a budget measure necessary to clear the way for Trump's tax-cutting plan, and aides already assume they may lose Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky, leaving no room for further losses.
Corker has been a longtime deficit hawk and has expressed concern about a tax plan that would add as much as $1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, according to the budget resolution under consideration.
Some White House officials said they expected Corker to still support the budget measure next week because he already voted for it in committee, but other advisers to Trump have said privately that they worried the president was sacrificing his agenda for another round of personal sniping. Trump said Tuesday that he was confident the rupture with Corker would not sink his tax plan.
"I don't think so at all," he told reporters during the meeting with Kissinger. "I think we're well on our way. The people of this country want tax cuts. They want lower taxes."
But he expressed his frustration with Republicans in Congress, who have failed to pass legislation he supported to repeal President Barack Obama's health care program and replace it with their own version. He reaffirmed that he planned to sign an executive order Thursday intended to make it easier for some Americans to purchase less expensive health insurance.
"With Congress the way it is, I decided to take it upon myself," he told reporters.
He did not save all of his criticism for his own party. He also accused Democrats — with whom he has been trying to negotiate an immigration deal — of being soft on border security.
"The problem with agreeing to a policy on immigration is that the Democrats don't want secure borders, they don't care about safety for U.S.A.," he wrote on Twitter.
Trump demanded this week that Democrats agree to a series of hard-line immigration enforcement measures, including construction of his oft-promised wall along the Mexican border, in exchange for legislation protecting younger immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Democratic leaders called the demands unacceptable.