Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who announced his retirement in a withering speech aimed at President Trump, tells NPR that he is "deeply saddened" to leave the Senate, but that lawmakers must take a stand now against the administration's behavior or "lose that chance."
Addressing his Senate colleagues on Tuesday, Flake — who has sparred with the president for months — called out the Trump administration for what he described as its "casual undermining of our democratic ideals" as well as "reckless, outrageous and undignified" behavior. Speaking to Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, the senator said it "was a tough speech to give."
"I love this institution. I'm not leaving because I'm sour on the Senate or Congress," he says. "I'm deeply saddened to leave it."
Flake, who served four terms in the House before being elected to represent Arizona in the U.S. Senate in 2013, said he would retire in early January 2019 rather than seek a second term.
The expectation that Trump would grow into the presidency has not materialized. "[The] pivot we all hoped for isn't coming.
"Before this becomes the new normal, I think we have to stand up and say this is not normal behavior," Flake tells NPR. "And if we don't stand up now, we're going to lose that chance."
The senator's harsh words come on the heels of increasingly vocal criticism of Trump from a handful of influential Senate Republicans.
Just over a week ago, Sen. John McCain, Flake's Arizona colleague, warned about the rise of "half-baked, spurious nationalism." And Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has openly questioned the president's competence and referred to the chaotic White House as "an adult day care center." Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced last month that he would not seek re-election next year, all but acknowledging that the White House has made it impossible to do his job.
Flake, who has consistently enjoyed high marks from conservative groups, says that in the current political climate, that isn't enough to get elected.
"Now you have to behave differently and be more angry and take positions and act in ways that I don't think are becoming of conservatives," he says, adding that he believes "this fever will go down at some point."
"The spell will break. Resentment is not a governing philosophy," he tells NPR.
"You need to legislate, and in order to legislate, you need to work with your friends across the aisle. You can't refer to them as clowns or losers, as the president has done," he says.
Flake, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, says he is worried about America's foreign policy, which he says is "chaotic" under the Trump administration.
"There is something to the old 'madman theory,' to keep your adversary off base, not knowing what you'll do," he says, referring to the unofficial foreign policy first associated with the Nixon White House to convince potential enemies that the president could be unpredictable under pressure.
"There has to be some underlying strategy. I'm not sure that we have that," Flake tells NPR. "It's not a good sign and doesn't bode well for peace and security long term."
Asked by Steve whether he thinks "something needs to be done" about Trump, the Flake replies: "If you are asking if I think the president has committed high crimes or misdemeanors, I don't think so."
"And I don't think there is any Article 25 remedy," he says, referring to a clause in the U.S. Constitution that provides for removing a president who "is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."
"I just think we just ought to stand up and require something better in terms of behavior and treatment of members of Congress and others, Gold Star families, you name it," Flake says. "But that doesn't have to involve any remedy like the 25th Amendment or impeachment proceedings."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump's White House agrees with Senator Jeff Flake about one thing. The presidential press secretary says she agrees with Flake's decision to quit. The Arizona Republican, a critic of President Trump, announced his departure from the Senate yesterday, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not like the rest of what Flake said in a speech on the Senate floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEFF FLAKE: It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.
INSKEEP: In particular, Flake called for an end to Congress being complicit with the president.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FLAKE: Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.
INSKEEP: OK. It was just one man standing at a desk talking somberly as some of his colleagues looked on. But what he said, carried on live TV, brought Washington to a halt yesterday afternoon. Flake said he would give up his fight for re-election from Arizona. He thought he might lose a primary to a pro-Trump challenger. After his speech, the senator met his wife for dinner, and then he came on the line to take our questions about what he sees at stake.
FLAKE: I think we have to stand up and say this is not normal behavior. And if we don't stand up now, I think we're going to lose that chance.
INSKEEP: Has Congress been failing to do that?
FLAKE: I think so, yes. I think that we could be a lot more forceful in saying that this is behavior that we won't accept or tolerate and won't countenance. The longer we do, the more normalized it becomes, and that's simply not good.
INSKEEP: Why is Congress failing to act as a check on this president, and what should they have been doing that they're not doing?
FLAKE: Well, when the president talks about, for example, pulling the license of, you know, some of the networks or...
INSKEEP: He talks about questioning broadcast licenses.
FLAKE: Yeah. I mean, that's something that Congress needs to stand right up and say, no, that's the First Amendment we're protecting. Administrations will always, with regard to security versus freedom, opt to, you know, have the maximum security. It's up to Congress to protect civil liberties, for example. Too often and too frequently over the past few years, we've fallen down on that job, I believe.
INSKEEP: Is your longtime friend and past collaborator Vice President Mike Pence part of the problem?
FLAKE: I'm a good friend of Mike Pence, and I think the world of him. He's in a tough situation where he is. I think the buck stops with the president.
INSKEEP: But I think you're talking about members of Congress who are enabling the president, in effect. Isn't the vice president doing the same thing if that's what it is?
FLAKE: Well, I have to hope that in their private moments he's trying to prevail on the president to change his behavior as it relates to members of Congress or Gold Star families or others.
INSKEEP: I noticed that House Speaker Paul Ryan put out a statement about your retirement announcement and it was very friendly toward you, very warm words, but I didn't see any comment at all in his written statement about your critique of Congress, no response at all to your concern that people were complicit in the worst behavior of the president, as you put it. Is Speaker Ryan part of the problem?
FLAKE: Paul is a good man with a tough job. And I think that, you know, certainly during the campaign on a number of occasions and a few times since, he's stood up. I think that we obviously need to do more. But he's obviously got a tough job where he is. And then, believe me, it's - I don't relish those in leadership here trying to to move legislation that the president can sign and dealing in this atmosphere, but I do think that we're long past time when we can expect the administration to get up to speed. So I think we've got to expect more of them.
INSKEEP: I guess we should mention there's some kind of siren in the background. That's just a siren on Capitol Hill as you and I are talking. You said that Paul Ryan has been critical of the president particularly during the campaign, and that is certainly true, but that's what raises a question in some people's minds because there are plenty of Republicans who have been critical, who have expressed concern privately or publicly, but in the end, critics will say, they support the president's agenda. They vote the way the president would like them to vote, and even when it's hard to figure out what the president's agenda is, they're trying to support it. Is that what they should be doing?
FLAKE: Well, there are obviously things that we can agree with the president on with his agenda. I'm a conservative. I like the judges that he's nominated. I like some of the things on deregulation. About things on trade, not so much, handling of foreign policy. I hope that more of us stand up and say this kind of instability and chaos is not helpful in terms of our long-term alliances overseas and our long-term domestic policy, either.
INSKEEP: You said in your speech that you wanted to be able to tell your children and grandchildren that you'd done something. You have now given a quite dramatic speech, you've written a book, you've done other things. You've announced your retirement. But I'm guessing that that alone would not cure what you see as the problem. What, in the end, do you hope to be able to tell your grandchildren that you did?
FLAKE: Well, if there are policies that he puts forward that are unconstitutional or don't take us in the right direction, that I stood up and opposed them.
INSKEEP: And I understood you to say that you thought you could stand up more easily if you were not fighting a primary fight and fighting a re-election battle. Although, on the other hand, that means that before too long you will be gone from the Senate. Will you be less effective as a result of that?
FLAKE: Well, obviously you've got to be in the arena, and that's why it's been, you know, it's been a great thing to be here. But there are other things you can do, other ways you can speak out, and I plan to do so.
INSKEEP: What have you got in mind?
FLAKE: (Laughter) I haven't decided that at all. I've got 14 months left. We've got to get authorization for use of military force through here quickly. We've got to do some kind of tax reform, obviously, and rein-in our debt and deficit. There are a lot of long-term problems we need to address.
INSKEEP: Does something need to be done about the president, about whom you've spoken so critically?
FLAKE: If you're asking whether I think the president's committed high crimes or misdemeanors, I don't think so. I just think that we ought to stand up and require something better in terms of behavior and treatment of members of Congress and others, Gold Star families, you name it. But that doesn't have to involve any remedy like the 25th Amendment or impeachment proceedings.
INSKEEP: One other thing, Senator. I watched your speech on the Senate floor. I've heard you speak a lot and I pay attention to voices, and listening to your voice, it seemed to me that you were quite emotional giving that speech. You were just on the verge of being overcome during a lot of it. What was going through your mind as you delivered that?
FLAKE: That was a tough speech to give, looking around at my colleagues, many of who came to hear it. I love this institution. This - I'm not leaving because I'm sour on the Senate or on Congress. This is a wonderful system of government we have, and it kind of withstands the foibles of all of us. And I, you know, am deeply saddened to leave it.
INSKEEP: That's Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona talking with us last night after his announcement on the Senate floor that he's not going to seek re-election. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.