WASHINGTON (AP) — He called her a warmonger. She called him a terrorist-supporting loser. And on it went Thursday between Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney in the latest Republican contest to influence — or just figure out — President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
At issue are weighty matters of war, America’s role in Afghanistan and, more broadly, the world. Paul has long tried to persuade Trump to trust his “America First” instincts and downscale U.S. military actions in places like Afghanistan and Syria. But others with Trump’s ear, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have counseled a more traditional GOP approach to foreign affairs. With Trump ousting hard-line national security adviser John Bolton this week — a firing Paul celebrated — more hawkish lawmakers are concerned about what comes next, particularly on Iran, where Trump seems eager to deal.
But the weighty philosophical questions gave way to an ugly Twitter spat between Paul and Cheney, with a throng of observers chiming in on which political scion Trump likes and even “loves” more. Not helping calm things was the fallout from Trump’s cancellation of a Taliban meeting at Camp David that had been set to take place just days before the nation observed the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Cheney on Sept. 8 lined up with Bolton against Trump’s Taliban meeting, tweeting: “Camp David is where America’s leaders met to plan our response after al Qaeda, supported by the Taliban, killed 3000 Americans on 9/11. No member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever.”
But as the anniversary approached and Trump fired his national security adviser, Paul tweeted on Sept. 10: “The threat of war around the world has been greatly diminished, with John Bolton out of the White House.” The next day, he reposted criticism from Cheney’s opponents and added: “Why do some neocons continue to advocate for endless wars? I stand with @realdonaldtrump on ending wars.”
Cheney shot back: “I stand with @realDonaldTrump and our men and women in uniform who will never surrender to terrorists, unlike @RandPaul, who seems to have forgotten that today is 9/11.”
For the record, both Cheney and Paul have opposed Trump at various times — something they would have in common if they became colleagues in the Senate. While Cheney has ascended to the third spot in House Republican leadership, she has the option of running for an open Senate seat in Wyoming in 2020.
Paul, meanwhile, is not up for reelection next year, but he does not tend to walk away from fights.
This one is tinged by political legacies. Paul, a libertarian, is the son of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Cheney’s interventionist approach echoes that of her father, Dick Cheney, who was President George W. Bush’s vice president on 9/11.
Add the party’s battle over whether the U.S. should continue to fight in Afghanistan, site of the longest war in American history. Both U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been strong proponents of dealing with the Taliban, an approach Bolton loudly opposed. That contributed to Bolton’s firing.
There’s long been guesswork involved in determining what the president’s foreign policy is. Trump has regularly griped that the U.S. is paying too much to help keep world peace. And he’s backtracked or shifted U.S. policy toward North Korea, Iran and Syria so often that he has left friends and foes seeking coherence.
Back home in the president’s own party, those dynamics erupted this week on his favorite medium between Paul and Liz Cheney, the faces of Republican isolationists and interventionists, respectively.
By Thursday, as the virtual shoving match approached 24 hours old, the two were still dishing out a rapid-fire series of hold-my-drink burns.
“Hi @Liz_Cheney, President @realDonaldTrump hears all your NeverTrump warmongering. We all see your pro-Bolton blather. I’m just grateful for a president who, unlike you, supports stopping these endless wars.”
Cheney invoked Paul’s bid for the 2016 GOP nomination, which Trump won.
“Hi @RandPaul,” she tweeted. “I know the 2016 race was painful for you since you were such a big loser (then & now) with a dismal 4.5% in Iowa. No surprise since your motto seems to be ‘Terrorists First, America Second.'”
The Kentucky Republican senator invoked Cheney’s father.
“Hey @Liz_Cheney I feel like you might just be mad still about when Candidate Trump shredded your Dad’s failed foreign policy and endless wars,” Paul tweeted, with a repost from a February 2016 GOP debate, along with a photo of the lineup.
“Weird. I don’t see you on stage here, @RandPaul,” Cheney replied. “Oh, right. My bad – you had already lost.”
Follow Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman