Alaska’s senior U.S. senator found herself the target of presidential tweets Thursday, after she endorsed a blistering denouncement of Donald Trump and praised the political courage it takes to speak out against him.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski spoke about former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s critique of the president to reporters from CNN, Politico and the Washington Post, in an impromptu interview at the U.S. Capitol. And though she said she’s still struggling to decide if she will continue to support Trump, the president targeted her with a pair of tweets later in the day.
“Few people know where they’ll be in two years from now, but I do, in the Great State of Alaska (which I love) campaigning against Senator Lisa Murkowski. She voted against HealthCare, Justice Kavanaugh, and much else,” Trump wrote. “Unrelated, I gave Alaska ANWR, major highways, and more. Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing. If you have a pulse, I’m with you!”
Murkowski, in her comments earlier in the day, addressed a statement by Mattis that said Trump is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people–does not even pretend to try.”
“Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Murkowski told reporters: “I thought General Mattis’s words were true and honest and necessary and overdue.”
She also spoke of Mattis’ statement as a turning point.
“I felt like perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally, and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up,” she told reporters. “And so, I’m working as one individual to form the right words, knowing that these words really matter.”
Then a reporter asked if she could still support Trump.
“I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time … I work hard to try to make sure that I’m able to represent my state well, that I’m able to work with any administration and any president.”
Murkowski is one of the few Republican senators who has repeatedly criticized Trump and she voted against some of his high profile nominees.
Immediate reactions to her remarks on social media included gratitude and fury.
Some Alaskans on the left were angry Murkowski didn’t take a stronger stance.
In Anchorage, Democrat Emily Becker was more understanding. A retired teacher, Becker says Murkowski has policy goals to achieve, so doesn’t want to alienate Trump.
“But the fact is, Trump is morally repugnant. She knows that,” said Becker, a retired teacher. “I know she knows that.”
Becker says Trump’s threat to deploy the military against American citizens and the way a peaceful protest was crushed on Monday so he could brandish a Bible in front of a church shows he’s dangerous. She says Alaskans should thank Murkowski but encourage her to go further.
Jim Crawford, Trump’s 2016 Alaska campaign chair, says Murkowski is free to hold a different view, but he likes how Trump has handled the protestors, some of whom became destructive.
“He has been very firm in calling out the governors and calling out the mayor’s to stop criminal activity,” Crawford daid. “The bad guys shouldn’t run the streets. And that’s what he’s saying. And I support him in that.”
On Twitter, several people sifted through Murkowski’s words and criticized her for using rhetorical hedges – “perhaps” and “might” – and her general caution.
But Mary Bishop of Fairbanks, a “never Trump” Republican, read the transcript of her senator’s remarks and was pleased to see the caution.
“Where she says ‘… I’m working on the right words, knowing that these words really matter.’ That’s the thing that to me is so critical,” Bishop said. “I sure wish that our president knew that his words really mattered.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan did not grant an interview request this afternoon. In a written statement, Sullivan said finger-pointing is not helpful.
Congressman Don Young issued a statement saying he wants the president to be successful at unifying the nation. That’s something Mattis alleges Trump isn’t even trying to achieve.
Reporter Nat Herz contributed to this story. This story has been updated.