Jeff Flake Talks Impeachment and More

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S1: Last week while Washington was barreling forward with an impeachment inquiry I flew to Texas.

S2: It seemed like a pretty awful time to be off the show. But I wanted to go anyway because I had this interview to do a live show at the Texas Tribune Festival.

S3: Hey everyone. Hey. I’m Mary Harris. I host Slate’s daily news podcast. What next. And when I say it’s daily I mean five days a week. Although right now I feel like I could use an hourly podcast. Giving me updates. I don’t know if you feel the same way.

S2: I was there to speak to former Senator Jeff Flake. You remember him the Republican who held up the cabinet hearings. He retired last year but before doing that he’d made a name for himself as a reliable critic of President Trump.

S3: He even skipped the Republican Convention in 2016. He told The Washington Post I’ve gotta mow my lawn.

S4: It join me. I didn’t know my Lord Justice said.

S2: Today on the show. My full conversation with Jeff Flake about impeachment about Brett Kavanaugh and about why he didn’t stay in Washington and keep fighting. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: I spoke to former Senator Jeff Flake at the impeachment news in Washington was boiling over the Director of National Intelligence had just testified in Congress an earlier that morning. The whistleblower’s complaint had been released to the public.

S5: So I have to tell you before this week I had a whole other set of questions for you.

S6: Understood. But here we are. And so I feel like we have to start with impeachment.

S3: Knowing what we know today. And frankly I’m not sure everything we know today it’s coming out so quickly. Are you in favor of the impeachment process moving forward.

S7: I’ve I’ve been on record for the longest time to step back. I’m not a fan of the president.

S8: I mean you’re not going to say yes or no good.

S7: I would. I don’t want to see the president impeached. I really don’t because I don’t want to get in a cycle. Of disqualifying public officials rather than beating them at the polls. And I’ve lived in countries where they do that where they get in that cycle and it’s tough to get out and we may have already entered it. So I hope there’s not but I understand and can appreciate what’s facing the house right now saying we need to fill our constitutional duty and obviously not all the information is in. But what is in is extremely troubling and I can’t imagine. And I still look at some of my colleagues who are passing it off as nothing and say What are you looking at. What would you do if the previous president had done this. So this is extremely serious. They need to take their job seriously. There is a lot more information that will come out I think in the coming days. And I hope it doesn’t go there. I really do because I think that we don’t want to get in that cycle.

S9: OK. Well let me let me pin you down here because impeachment inquiry because it seemed to me the second that Nancy Pelosi said those words out loud all of us.

S5: It was like he pushed a little bit and all of a sudden documents are coming out and transcripts are coming out. You know we’ve been asking for those things in the court for a long long time.

S7: Well I mean there’s nothing in the Constitution that defines what an inquiry is is supposed to periods or or whatever else. So that’s just kind of a manufactured next step. But whatever gets more information out and required and finally pushes the White House to respond because they aren’t responding they haven’t responded to subpoenas. And I think it’s going to be even more difficult because the whistleblower is identifying individuals in the White House who. The whistleblower alleges helped try to cover this up. And so we’re likely going to face some real confrontation here going forward. It’s it’s hold on to your hats. It’s going to be a turbulent ride I think in the next couple of months.

S8: So maybe it could be done for yes for inquiry. No I didn’t say that.

S7: There is no way to look at that transcript. Partial transcript I mean it’s not a full transcript and not say oh my goodness what is this and even long before this you’d say with the Mueller report it may not say that the president should be impeached but it certainly says he shouldn’t be reelected and that’s what I want my colleagues to realize.

S10: Well so you have friends in Washington have all the attention now is on your former colleagues in the Senate because they would be the jury if there was an impeachment proceeding. So when you call your friends in D.C. I mean what are they saying about these new allegations.

S11: Somebody mentioned yesterday that if there were a private vote that there’d be 30 Republican votes. That’s not true.

S8: There’d be at least 35 maybe maybe more. If it were a private vote.

S7: But that’s not possible. And so they have to come out and many of them are up for re-election in tough seats. And I know that feeling and I hope that even if my colleagues aren’t willing to vote for impeachment they’d think you know there is this is not worth it. And look at the long term good of the Republican Party because that’s what I think we ought to be concerned about. We’ve given ourselves for whatever reason two political parties in this country and we need to same functioning parties to make this work. And I think we’re kind of moving away from that. So what was your question again now.

S6: Did you ever think about a third party. It just like you don’t have to stand there while the president said stuff.

S5: You have a voice. Yes.

S12: I’m a third party.

S7: I don’t think we’re there. We’re a third party is going to come about anytime soon. But I do think particularly if the president were to win a second term if the president is defeated next year I think then Joe Biden is talked about and I’ve talked about for a long time this. This can be viewed as an aberration. You know our sojourn into unfamiliar territory here we get right back and say that wasn’t good.

S11: If he is elected again reelected that becomes much more difficult. But I think the manifestation of it is more likely to be. That in certain states probably like Arizona you’re likely to see more independent candidates not aligning with a third party.

S7: But in just about every state now you have a good chunk of the electorate in Arizona it’s about a third a third a third Republican Democrat independent. Independents don’t vote in that propensity some of they’re simply registered that way because they don’t really affiliate but that is growing. And you have a growing number of Republicans who certainly don’t want to affiliate with this kind of nativist protectionist new kind of party. And I think there are a number of Democrats who think that the party may have shifted too far to the left. And so I think in the center there there are more. And if a few states elected independent senators they could still caucus with the Republicans or the Democrats.

S11: That’s how the system works but it would be a much better body if we had a group who are truly more independent than they are now because the Senate is just not working. It is not the world’s most deliberative body by. By a long shot. And I think I think you’re more likely to see that if the president is re-elected for a second term which I hope does not happen.

S3: But waiting. Doesn’t it take some of the moral authority out of the action like saying like OK now it’s too much pressure.

S7: I think so we should have reached that a while ago. I mean when if any of you haven’t picked up this new book American carnage by Tim Alberta it is about the best encapsulation of what has how the ground was plowed and made fertile for a populist to come in. And that was a period I lived in Washington. There was an office there at least Trump is not the cause of all these problems he certainly has taken advantage of them. In ways that others would not. And I think that we we should have realized that a while ago when he was elected I mean just go down the line of what. Conservative Conservatism used to mean limited government. That’s kind of gone. Trillion dollar deficits in times of plenty rejection of authoritarianism. We’ve seemed to embrace it now. And so I mean I think we should have gone there along. But if people wake up you know a year from now that’s OK.

S13: That’s better than not waking up at all. Yes.

S9: I’m glad you brought up that book because that book goes into some detail a little bit about your relationship with Mike Pence and I thought of you yesterday because I was watching the president give this speech at the U.N. and he started to throw Pence under the bus a bit. He said if you’re looking into me you should look into Mike Pence too.

S8: Yeah that was Mike and I go way back.

S7: We both ran kind of market based conservative think tanks in the 90s we were elected at the same time we were best buddies in the house. And in that book he mentions that a year or so ago or just before the election Mike came to. Mesa Arizona where I live now. And he was about a mile from my house. And so I sent him a text I said come by.

S8: You can help me trim hedges down the line. Exactly. You know he he said only if I can cut Trump pence in the hedge.

S7: I said small hedge only room for Pence.

S8: He never came.

S7: But I feel badly for him I really do. I mean you but I I’ve I remain you know we we remain friends and he is loyal to a fault. There are there’s a virtue in that. And who’s to say the path I’ve taken is is any more virtuous. He may have felt that he could change the direction or rein the president in. It’s tough to see. How that is done but. But it’s got to be uncomfortable for him.

S13: I think you know when was the last time you talked to him. I won’t say if impeachment doesn’t move forward.

S14: I mean if Trump is booted but a lot of ifs there. Right. Does it solved the problem.

S11: It’s not guaranteed to solve the problem. I don’t think the party is going to change direction as long as he’s at the helm. But maybe him leaving will not change things either it could be another populist that comes in and that’s partly why I I hope we don’t have to go down that road if we must we must. If the evidence shows that he should then we should. But I desperately hope that we don’t because I do think that that that does embolden him politically. I think Nancy Pelosi has been right politically to hold off. She has but also I think it’s easier for that group of strong supporters now the president when he talks about having 94 ninety six percent of the Republican vote.

S7: That’s a little skewed because fewer people self-identified as Republicans now. So it’s a smaller base but still it is significant. This is his party no doubt.

S11: But I think if he were to be impeached it would be easier for a larger subset of that group to claim that it was it was done improperly and then have a grievance and be more likely to support somebody else. I think if he’s defeated and handily at the polls it’s easier to say. We need to move on. We were wrong to go that way.

S14: So that’s another reason I hope that we don’t have to go to the impeachment room so neighbors convincing neighbors versus senators telling you this was wrong. Yeah I want to talk about something else which is one of the moments during a public service when you really stepped into the spotlight. The hearings for Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. There’s this picture of you that went viral. You must have seen it. David Simon tweeted it out.

S8: He called it the temptation of the flake.

S15: This time magazine read it as one of their photos of the year that they called it the man in the middle. It looks like his mojo painting.

S7: But yeah that was that was the time and that was actually one year ago tomorrow. Yeah. But that was a defining moment.

S10: Yeah I mean it’s a moment where you are deciding whether to push judge Cabinet through or whether to hold back and have an FBI investigation and eventually you did decide to hold back and have an FBI investigation.

S16: But it was only a week long.

S10: And I wonder if now a year later you feel like that work was adequate.

S11: I would have liked to have had the FBI started investigating earlier and have done that more thoroughly. That was my preference. Having said that the investigation that they did was not insignificant. And those who passed it off as insignificant or wrong. And I what I felt. When I got to the committee that day and it was just a food fight between Republicans and Democrats I thought the country is not settled. I had already indicated that I would vote to to advance him to the floor because I. Knew I couldn’t have stopped him there anyway if I had I not voted. They still could have moved it to the floor without a recommendation and probably have but. But then Chris Coons gave a speech on the other side which was a very sober measured speech saying why can’t we do this for a week. We could. It can be limited in time. And the reason it needed to be limited in time is this was the way I feel about the entire cabinet thing. Some Democrats not all. Some wanted to just run out the clock.

S7: There weren’t many who supported cabinet before the allegations. Who all of a sudden found a reason not to. There were a lot of them who just wanted any reason to stop on the reverse side on the Republican side. There were many Republicans not all. But who didn’t. If there was a problem it was an issue that would have been disqualifying some of them didn’t want to know about it and some justified it in terms of well the Democrats are doing it too.

S11: But for whatever reason that’s not good. It wasn’t good for the country and I felt that if cabinet did end up on the court then we shouldn’t have him under such a cloud. That there ought to be something that that amounted to more due diligence on the Senate’s part. And like I said it would have been my preference to start earlier. But in the end the way I looked at it. So I asked for the investigation. We got it. It was not insignificant.

S7: And and I felt in the end we cannot be at a standard and accept a standard where the mere allegation is enough to disqualify.

S9: Well what did you see in that investigation that changed your mind. Because

S10: you’ve talked about how before that moment so many women had come forward to you told you their own stories you were feeling quite torn. And so I’m wondering what it was about that investigation that changed your mind.

S11: No I’m not gonna reveal what was in the investigation. Only that what has been reported publicly is there was nothing to corroborate. They interviewed anybody who had primary knowledge. They didn’t go the second step to hearsay or that that would have taken them a lot longer time to but it was there wasn’t anything to corroborate it. And I felt that we can’t have a standard when some some people then would come back and say well even if you put the allegations aside his Buffet behavior before the committee should have been disqualifying.

S12: Yeah. Twenty four hundred million dollars. And there was. And there is there something to be said for that I didn’t like his performance at all.

S11: But I tried to put myself in his position too had I just been accused not just the fraud allegations or Ramirez. You remember it was Michael Abernathy and others coming forward. It was he’s participated in gang rape and there were just ugly awful. Unsubstantiated just horrible things being said and I tried to think of how I would feel if that were the case if that had all been leveled against me and I felt that it was unjust. And then in a situation like that you you look at his record and his record on the circuit court we could not find one clerk one plaintiff one colleague anybody who said that he’d been anything but a. But fair and just and there’d been any breach of decorum during that time. So that and then I mean for me that was that was important because as I said on the Senate floor as well for those who expressed certainty on either side that he didn’t do anything or he did.

S7: I never had that certitude and I will never have. And I would suggest that none of us ever will. If you’re talking about allegations that are old.

S11: Made between people on both sides who had been drinking more than 30 years ago I would submit that nobody nobody not perhaps even those involved completely will ever remember or know exactly what happened. And so for somebody to be so certain about what happened. I just never got there.

S14: Well but I want to say one more thing here which is you mentioned Chris Coons who is your friend. I’ll be with him tomorrow.

S10: And he had a very different take on the FBI investigation. There is reporting now. First of all that this guy Max Stier came to him and said there’s another allegation of something that went wrong at Yale and that he tried to get that to the FBI. The FBI ignored it that he had a call with the White House and he said I thought we were gonna do this by the book and the Don McGann said there is no book.

S14: So for someone like you who defends decorum and institutions the book seems important.

S11: What we had agreed to and the the agreement was between myself and Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski and a few others on the Judiciary Committee and Leader McConnell was that it would be limited in time we’d already agreed to that one week no more and that it would be limited in scope that they would interview primary witnesses and if those primary witnesses mentioned things that would lead the FBI to go further to the second step then they ought to take that step but not to enter into the FBI investigation saying we’re going to go look at new allegations because you have to remember there were there were people simply trying to delay it. And that was not fair to the process. It’s certainly not fair to Judge Kavanaugh. And so I hope we came out in a better place. I think we did. But this whole nominating process and advise and consent ever since 2003 when we stopped allowing the president’s executive calendar particularly judges to come to the floor for an up or down vote. It’s been polarized and increasingly so and what we Republicans did with Merrick Garland only put that in hyperdrive. And it’s going to be difficult moving ahead.

S3: Did you know about that Max Stier allegation in real time.

S11: No I I’ve been I’ve talked to a number of people in the last couple of weeks about it and I don’t recall that. But after remember there were there were an he was calling with you know other things and there were a lot of different things and that may have been in there. But I don’t recall it. I don’t remember it. I even called some of my legal folks on the committee and asked them if they remembered it and they didn’t.

S10: Leaving aside those allegations does it matter if he lied under oath because people didn’t come forward and say he said he didn’t really drink that much and we know all sorts of other allegations about him not being 100 percent on it.

S11: Yeah I mean it does matter obviously. And on some things you know if you look back at your high school record. I’d probably say I scored more touchdowns than I really did in football and and I’ve never been a drinker. But I’m sure people minimize or maximize depending on what’s what’s preferable those things all the time. I don’t know that that should be dispositive. But a big lie like. I did this or that or whatever then yeah that that should be disqualifying. But but I didn’t see that. Would you vote for me again if I had the same situation. Yeah I mean I keep in mind this was for me. It would’ve been far easier at that time to to vote to vote. No it’s always easier to say no to somebody like this. But I felt it was extremely important not to set a precedent where. An allegation uncorroborated alone is disqualifying. Because trying to get people to put themselves forward as nominees for what not. If that is the case I just don’t think we can have that standard and some people say well this is advise and consent it’s different than a court of law. But it’s what we’ve got. It’s the process we have for putting nominees on the court. And so it was it was a tough thing to do. I felt I did the right thing and I still feel that.

S13: I didn’t mean for it to be a laugh line guys. You left the Senate last year. You gave a couple of emotional speeches over the year where you talked about.

S17: Washington and how it had changed and it seems to me like since you left more and more people are making a similar decision.

S16: There was an article in The Washington Post just this week reporting on the growing list of House Republicans who are retiring.

S3: It had this quote from Representative Paul Mitchell from Michigan and he said we’re here for a purpose and it’s not this petty childish bullshit which frankly is kind of like what you were saying just saltier.

S13: Thank you for being here.

S3: I guess I see it differently and I want you to help me understand your point of view which is I feel like when we elect people to Washington we’re asking them to go there and fix the petty bullshit.

S17: And I don’t want you to cede to it cede and leave not.

S11: Yeah. You know it’s. I understand that. For me to stay in Washington would have required. Given the politics of today and where my party is. It would have required me to. Adopt the president’s positions and condone his behavior. That’s the reality. That’s not what I wanted. I would have liked to have a state another turn. It’s tough to get to the Senate and it’s a significant thing as well to to ask of your family and your family had death threats. Oh yeah my wife marks a time out of office. Oh in the weeks and now months without death threats. And it’s I mean just two or three weeks ago two. Individuals were sentenced for death threats against me and my family and my wife received many text messages over a period of a week with. Links to beheading videos. And with the addresses of all of our kids that’s part of the mix as well you think you know. While the fever to cool just a bit.

S16: I don’t I have one more question because I know that we’re running over time. You haven’t ruled out running for office again. Right. It’s my wife.

S11: I haven’t ruled it out. I didn’t leave because you know I. A pox on the institution for the Senate or the house. It’s a good system we have good people involved. What would you do differently. I don’t know. I mean it’s a different world. So I mean I would be entering kind of where I left I think if I went in now I’m hopeful that the fever will cool. I can tell you right now there’s no no place for me in my party. I don’t think that will always be the case. But right now there just isn’t too going through the primary process. So until we’re off and things change.

S18: Then I think 18 years is a good run. Thank you so much for joining me.

S19: Thank you.

S20: Former Senator Jeff Flake is now a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. This show was recorded as part of the Texas Tribune Festival. We are super grateful for the Tribune’s help in getting it all done. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Jason de Leone Mara Silvers and Daniel Hewett. Thank you to everyone. Dahlia Lithwick and Allison Benedikt and Jeremy stall who held down the fort while I was away. And thank you to Katy Rayford who let me record this whole show in her hotel room closet under a blanket. If you wanna see pictures of the live show go find me on Twitter I’m at Mary’s desk. I am Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.