Jeff Flake’s Empty Words

Until the senator is willing to oppose his own party’s agenda, his anti-Trump speeches are meaningless.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks to reporters following a vote on Capitol Hill on January 11, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Jeff Flake speaks to reporters following a vote on Capitol Hill on Thursday in Washington.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

No Senate Republican, with the possible exception of John McCain, has taken a stronger verbal stance against President Trump than Arizona’s Jeff Flake, who has declared the president “a threat to the stability of the entire world.” On Wednesday, Flake plans to make a speech in advance of Trump’s Fake News Awards that compares Trump’s anti-press rhetoric to Joseph Stalin’s. As much as this might delight a president who worships dictators—especially dictators of Russia—Flake means it as a harsh criticism.

If Flake’s formidable speech last year announcing his retirement at the end of this congressional session is any guide—he lambasted “the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals” and said that all Trump represents “is dangerous to a democracy”—his remarks on Wednesday are sure to be robust. But from what his office has leaked of his comments, and in his public remarks about his hopes for the future of the Republican Party, Flake continues to misunderstand and underestimate his own not insignificant power. The result is that, no matter how forceful his words or genuine his objections, Flake’s opposition to Trump has been essentially token.
He can do better but only if he starts reconceiving his place in the Senate.

This past weekend, Flake went on television to outline his speech, which has already enraged Republicans. (Flake is expected to say, in part, “The president has it precisely backward—despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him fake news, it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”) But in the process of defending his approach to Trump, Flake was forced to explain why he has overwhelmingly voted for Trump’s agenda. “I’m a conservative, and when something like health care reform comes up … I voted some 30 times to repeal and replace Obamacare,” he told Christiane Amanpour on CNN:

Why should somebody expect, because I have disagreements with the president on some policy and behavior, for me to change my vote and vote differently? Should I do it just out of spite? Or to hobble the presidency? I find it interesting when people expect me, because I have disagreements with the president, to want to hobble him, or to vote against what I consider good policy just out of spite. I don’t do that and I don’t think I should.

On the surface, this approach makes a certain amount of sense. Flake is a staunch conservative with an extremely conservative voting record. Trump, eschewing the phony populism that characterized aspects of his campaign, is now pursuing a typical conservative legislative agenda. Why wouldn’t Flake vote for it? But if Flake legitimately believes that Trump’s presidency “is dangerous to a democracy,” then wouldn’t hobbling him be the right thing to do, regardless of what policy goals get sacrificed in the process?

The clear upshot of Flake’s remarks over the past year is that this is an extraordinary time, and in extraordinary times, you … know the rest. But Flake seems entirely unwilling to take actions commensurate with either the times—which he correctly recognizes as frighteningly dangerous—or his own words. He seems to believe that anything too radical would be a violation of his conservative principles, when in fact he should be willing to temporarily put aside his commitment to those principles for his commitment to—by his own account—larger ones.

The Republicans have a 51–49 advantage in the Senate and control all major committees by a single vote. This is why Flake, McCain, and Bob Corker—who has implied Trump may bring about a nuclear holocaust—need to threaten the GOP agenda, which in many ways is their own. If they don’t want to switch parties—an idea that is sneered at, but should upset Republicans less than the prospect of nuclear war—they need to threaten to withhold their committee votes. (Flake sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, for instance, and the confirmation of judges remains arguably the most important Republican policy priority after tax cuts.) By simply demanding certain things, Flake and a colleague would force the GOP majority to go along with some circumscription of Trump’s power.

A small list of things they could demand, none of which are an affront to small-c conservative principles: a bill protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation, actual oversight of Trump’s business dealings and Emoluments Clause issues, a new look at the president’s power over nuclear weapons, promises from Trump to refrain from attacking ethnic and racial minorities and the media, promises from Trump to cease attacking the Justice Department’s integrity, ethics compliance among members of the executive branch, acceptance of 2016’s election results, and a promise to not try and restrict the franchise.

These are merely some ideas. They may have others. And, indeed, you might say that all of these things are far-fetched or pointless—that Trump will never comply with them or that his promises are made to be broken. All the better: In that case Trump’s agenda must be made to suffer—a prospect that is the only thing that could force other Republicans to begin putting pressure on Trump.

So Flake jumps ship or withholds his votes, paving the way for another Republican Trump critic who isn’t seeking re-election to do the same, paving the way for the above scenario to play out. I know it sounds absurd, and I understand why Flake and his saner colleagues are hesitant to threaten to vote against things they believe in. But if Flake wants us to believe that we are living in perilous times, he needs to start acting like it. Only creative solutions will be effective. His words on Wednesday might be inspiring—and are certain to be more honorable than the sniveling abjectness of most of his colleagues—but they are unlikely to do anything to stop the president he quite obviously detests.