WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump escalated his attack on Senator Bob Corker 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 on Tuesday (Oct 10). "Was made to sound a fool, and that's what I am dealing with!"
In labelling 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 (1.73m), was too short to be the nation's top diplomat.
Instead, Trump picked Rex Tillerson, who is 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 spokesman insist he did not say it.
The president, in an interview with Forbes magazine released on Tuesday (Oct 10), 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 defence, 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 labelled Senator Marco Rubio "Little Marco," dubbed Senator Ted Cruz "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 on 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.
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 recognised 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 Senators John McCain of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky, leaving no room for further losses.