WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump lashed out at Sen. Bob Corker as "Liddle' Bob Corker" on Tuesday, escalating a feud with the Tennessee Republican who's dubbed the White House an "adult day care center" and charged that Trump could be setting the nation on the path toward World War III.
Fellow GOP senators, treading carefully, avoided siding with Trump or with Corker. But leading lawmakers called on both men to end a quarrel that could imperil the Republican agenda on Capitol Hill. Trump will need Corker if he is to get big tax changes through the Senate, where the narrow GOP majority was unable to repeal Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. And Corker also figures to be a key player if Trump moves as expected to unwind the Iran nuclear deal.
"I have a lot of respect for Sen. Corker and what he brings to the Senate, but I think the president is leading in the right direction and I'm supportive of what he's doing," Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the GOP leadership, told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol. "I would encourage them both to stop what they're doing and get focused on what we need to be doing."
Sen. Cory Gardner, another high-ranking Republican, issued a similar plea to reporters at home in Colorado.
"I'm not going to get in the middle of this fight, but I don't think it's helpful to have finger-pointing and name-calling on either side," Gardner said. "We need to have people focusing on one thing and one thing only, and that's what we're going to do to create more opportunity for the American people."
Trump's tweet Tuesday alleged that Corker was "set up" by "the failing" New York Times in a recorded interview Sunday. Corker, who is not running for re-election, leveled searing criticism at Trump in the interview and said the president's conduct "would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation." Corker also said that Trump could set the U.S. "on the path to World War III" with threats toward other countries.
Trump responded to that charge Tuesday as he addressed reporters in the Oval Office while meeting with Henry Kissinger.
"We were on the wrong path before," Trump said. "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."
Trump also disputed the suggestion that his spat with Corker would affect his efforts to pass tax reform.
"I don't think so, no, I don't think so at all," he said in response to a reporter's question. "I think we're well in our way."
Earlier, Trump took to Twitter to voice his grievances over Corker's New York Times interview, belittling the senator's relatively short stature and writing that Corker "was made to sound a fool, and that's what I am dealing with!" Corker's office declined to respond, but a Times spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha, said "the interview with Sen. Corker was on the record and he knew it was being recorded."
Corker's comments echoed what some Republicans say privately, and drew public backing from another Republican who's announced his retirement, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who said more Republicans should be willing to speak out against Trump.
"What I believe Republicans should do in Congress is this: Work constructively with him and support him when he's on the right track, check him when he's moving in a bad direction, and call him out if he makes outlandish statements or offensive statements," Dent said.
But Trump's enduring popularity with a segment of the GOP base serves as a political muzzle that keeps most elected Republicans from saying anything similar, even those who believe it to be true.
And Trump still has plenty of loyalists on Capitol Hill, several of whom voiced displeasure with Corker's remarks. Corker's fellow Tennessean, Rep. Diane Black, said in an interview on the "Hugh Hewitt Show" on Tuesday that "if you talk about an adult daycare center, I'm sorry, but I think the Senate is an adult daycare center. They can't get anything done over there."
"We have been waiting for repeal and replace," Black said, referring to the Senate's failure to pass legislation to undo the Affordable Care Act after the House passed its own version. The Senate's failure on health care has also led Trump to attack Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the past.
Former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon lashed out at Corker, McConnell and others in an interview with conservative host Sean Hannity late Monday, calling on Corker to resign and threatening to take out incumbent GOP senators in primaries.
"We are declaring war on the Republican establishment," Bannon said on Fox News.
"Sen. Corker is an absolute disgrace," he said. "If Bob Corker has any honor, any decency, he should resign immediately."
Associated Press writer Dan Elliott in Denver contributed. Jill Colvin contributed from Washington.