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Photo: Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a call with constituents this week that President Trump mishandled the pandemic, "kisses dictator's butts," "sells out allies," "mocks evangelicals," and has "flirted with white supremacists," according to audio obtained by the Washington Examiner.

Why it matters: The comments mark one of the sharpest criticisms of the incumbent president at a time when many Republicans fear his unpopularity could cost them the White House, Senate and House.

Between the lines: Sasse, who was endorsed by President Trump in 2019, is running for re-election in Nebraska, where the president currently leads over Joe Biden by eight points, according to a recent Axios/SurveyMonkey poll.

  • Sasse's comments could increase the odds of Biden winning the electoral vote in Nebraska's 2nd congressional district, which is split from the rest of the state.
  • Sasse has been a critic of the president in the past, but remained largely silent while he was fighting to win the GOP nomination in the Nebraska primary.

What they're saying: In the call, a female constituent asked Sasse about his relationship with the president. After speaking on his points of agreement with Trump, such as his judicial nominees, Sasse began to unload.

  • "There's obviously a lot of places where he and I differ as well, and these aren't just mere policy issues, and I'm not at all apologetic for having fought for my values against his in places where I think his are deficient, not just for a Republican, but for an American," Sasse told the constituent.
  • "The way he kisses dictators' butts. I mean, the way he ignores that the Uighurs are in literal concentration camps in Xinjiang. Right now, he hasn't lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong-Kongers."
  • "The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor ... He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He's flirted with white supremacists."

Sasse at one point defended Trump for his response to the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that the media has tried to blame the crisis entirely on the president.

  • He then added: "But the reality is that he careened from curb to curb. First, he ignored COVID. And then he went into full economic shutdown mode. He was the one who said 10 to 14 days of shutdown would fix this."
  • "And that was always wrong. I mean, and so I don't think the way he's lead through COVID has been reasonable or responsible, or right.”

Of note: Sasse spokesperson James Wegmann confirmed the senator's comments shortly after the Washington Examiner released the call recording and said in a statement:

"Even though the Beltway is obsessing exclusively about the presidential race, control of the Senate is ten times more important. The fragile Senate seats that will determine whether Democrats nuke the Senate are the races Ben cares about, the races he’s working on, and the only races he’s talking about.”

The big picture: This is not the first time Sasse has criticized the president.

  • In July 2020, he criticized Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany, calling it "weak" and saying that the U.S. "should be leading our allies against China and Russia, not abandoning them," according to the Lincoln Journal Star.
  • In June 2020, when police tear gassed protesters near the White House so that the president could walk to a nearby church and pose with the Bible for a photo, Sasse spoke out against Trump's use of the "the Word of God as a political prop," the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

The bottom line: "I'm now looking at the possibility of a Republican bloodbath in the Senate, and that's why I've never been on the Trump train," Sasse said.

  • "It's why I didn't agree to be on his re-election committee and it's why I'm not campaigning for him."
  • "The debate is not going to be, Ben Sasse why were you so mean to Donald Trump? It’s going to be, what the heck were any of us thinking that selling a TV-obsessed, narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea?"

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 6: Last stand in Georgia

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer, Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 6: Georgia had not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 and Donald Trump's defeat in this Deep South stronghold, and his reaction to that loss, would help cost Republicans the U.S. Senate as well. Georgia was Trump's last stand.

On Air Force One, President Trump was in a mood. He had been clear he did not want to return to Georgia, and yet somehow he'd been conscripted into another rally on the night of Jan. 4.

Off the Rails

Episode 1: A premeditated lie lit the fire

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 1: Trump’s refusal to believe the election results was premeditated. He had heard about the “red mirage” — the likelihood that early vote counts would tip more Republican than the final tallies — and he decided to exploit it.

"Jared, you call the Murdochs! Jason, you call Sammon and Hemmer!”

Off the Rails

Episode 3: Descent into madness ... Trump: "Sometimes you need a little crazy"

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump's outside lawyers plot to seize voting machines and spin theories about communists, spies and computer software.

President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."