WASHINGTON – Comparing Donald Trump’s presidency to a “great storm” that brings “daily chaos” and “leaves ruin in its wake,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called for a conservative to challenge Trump in 2020 and didn’t rule out throwing his hat in the ring.
“I’m not running for re-election to the Senate and running for president is not in my plans, but I have not ruled anything out. I do think there should be a conservative challenge,” Flake said during a National Press Club luncheon last week. “I think, for no other reason, Republicans want to be reminded, I think, of what conservatism really means – limited government, economic freedom, free trade, reverence for the free press, immigration – and I hope somebody reminds Republicans of that. I think they are willing and waiting to be reminded.”
Flake was asked how concerned he is that the GOP could lose his Senate seat. Flake said the Republican Party should be worried given Republican Rick Saccone’s loss in last week’s Pennsylvania special election.
“That is a concern. I think what happened in Pennsylvania just yesterday is still happening, I guess, should be a big wakeup call for Republicans. I think, once again, we are testing the limits of Trumpism. We are realizing you can only drill down on the base so far,” he responded.
Flake predicted that the U.S. would “rebuild” after President Trump leaves office.
“Just as happens after a great storm leaves ruin in its wake, we will come together to rebuild. To shore up the foundations of our institutions that have seen such a gale lately, from that unpredictable storm now that is in the White House. We will not wink and nod at dictators. Nor will we congratulate them for the good job they are doing in their programs of extrajudicial killings. Nor will we host them in the Oval Office. Nor will we hesitate to punish them for attacking our elections,” Flake said.
“No, when this period is behind us, when the Congress passes Russia sanctions with a sense of urgency, then we can be sure that we will implement those sanctions immediately. No excuses. No waiting. We will be crystal clear and unambiguous in our defense of this country against the rogue ambitions of the likes of Vladimir Putin. There can be no passivity regarding the demonstrated Russia threat,” he added.
Flake argued that Trump has been giving authoritarians a pass.
“If the president saw it as his mandate to come in and turn the system upside down, to break the logjam and get things done, then it strains comprehension how going easy on dictators and how undermining the independence of our justice system are part of the solution to breaking Washington’s partisan logjam,” he said.
“They are not part of the solution, of course,” the senator added. “Rather, they are among the bizarre features of an anomalous presidency, and it is our duty going forward that they remain anomalous, that they never become thought of as normal.”
Flake criticized Trump’s recent statements about North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
“How anomalous is this behavior? At a Pennsylvania rally just a couple of days ago, the president sought to quiet the crowd from booing the mention of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un just as he encouraged, and reveled in, a chorus of jeers for the U.S. news media. This was the same speech, of course, in which he taunted a member of Congress for having a ‘low IQ.’ Referring to the media as ‘the enemy of the people’ is not normal or acceptable,” he said.
“It is hard to say whether the president is aware of that phrase’s ignoble pedigree, or whether the impulse just comes naturally to him,” he added. “Either way, dictators around the world are borrowing the president’s usage of the term ‘false news’ or ‘fake news’ to silence legitimate criticism and opposition. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there are a record number of journalists now being jailed worldwide, with 21 of that number being held on ‘false news’ charges, gravely echoing the president’s language.”
Flake argued that the GOP is abandoning its long-held principles.
“There are those in my party who continue to marvel at the strategic underpinnings of the daily chaos set loose from the White House. You just have to shake your head. That which is strategic must first be thought, then thought through, then a true leader has the confidence to have people more experienced than he tell him why it might be a terrible idea,” he said.
“Never has a party abandoned, fled its principles and deeply held beliefs so quickly as my party did in the face of a nativist juggernaut,” the Arizona Republican added. “We have become strangers to ourselves, even as we pretend that everything is fine, as if it is working as it has always worked. To that I say ‘nonsense.’”
Flake continued, “If my party is going to try to pass off the degradation of the United States and her values from the White House as normal, if we’re going to cloister ourselves in the alternative truth of an erratic leader, if we’re going to refuse to live in the world that everyone else lives in and reckon with the daily reality that they face – including their very real and understandable anxiety that they feel, then my party might not deserve to lead.”
Flake said defending democratic institutions shouldn’t be “a controversial idea and hasn’t been until very recently.”
“But recognizing that our institutions are under threat from within, with clarity, seems to me a basic obligation of the Article I branch of government – the Congress, whose power is, in theory, equal to that of the president’s. Conservatives in the Congress used to be very clear about their institutional prerogatives and their obligations under the Constitution. I should emphasize ‘used to be,’” he said.
To support his arguments, Flake cited Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
“We will throw our backs into reinforcing the beams of the American system of justice, to make sure that never again will the independence of the judiciary be so threatened and the tenets of justice be so abused,” he said.
“It is a measure of how far we have fallen when we must fight for the basic ideas of American liberty and for the preservation of basic norms – such as, that the attorney general is not the president’s personal lawyer, and the FBI director does not owe the president personal loyalty, but rather loyalty to the Constitution – to name but two,” he added.
Flake disagreed with Republicans who want Americans to ignore the president’s words and pay attention to his actions.
“These calls, of course, ignore the entirety of American history, not to mention the undeniable power of the words of a president, and exhort us to adopt a new norm to accommodate undignified public behavior for just this one president,” he said. “In the sweep of our history, have we ever been urged not to listen to what the president says? Of course not, as such admonitions are preposterous now.”
Flake said he sees irony in the fact that Trump was a builder before he became president.
“The irony should not escape us here – that someone whose name has become known to us as a builder would have such a penchant for destruction but as he was renowned at branding his name and putting his name on as many buildings and products as many as possible, in his wake, we will do well to similarly affix his name to many reforms as well,” he said. “In that way, this president may end reforming Washington after all just not in a way he could have imagined.”