Sen. Flake: It's not conservative to stay silent about the chaos of the Trump administration

Politics

A Republican senator and vocal critic of President Donald Trump publicly rebuked the president Tuesday but said so far Mr. Trump has "done nothing" that would force lawmakers to kick him out of office.

Mr. Trump "has done nothing that would compel us to remove him from office, but I do think nobody is above the law," Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said in an interview with PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff.

When Trump makes controversial statements in speeches or on social media, "I think we have a responsibility to stand up and say no, this is not right, and I hope we do so more in the future," Flake said.

Flake pointed to Trump's tweet last Wednesday announcing a ban on transgender people serving in the military. The ban, which has drawn criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, "didn't seem to be well thought out," Flake said.

Flake was a staunch member of the #NeverTrump camp in the 2016 presidential election. He doubled down on his criticism of Trump in his new book, "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle."

In the book, which was released Tuesday, Flake ripped into Trump's leadership ability, his use of social media and controversial presidential campaign.

Flake also criticized conservative voters and his fellow Republicans in Congress, arguing that the party compromised its core principles and backed a flawed, inexperienced candidate in order to win the election.

The book represents an unusually harsh attack by a member of Congress against a sitting president from their own party.

The timing isn't great for the White House and Republicans on the Hill. The book's release comes after a bruising stretch in which Senate Republicans failed to pass their health
care overhaul and Trump ordered a new staff shakeup.

Flake voted for the GOP health care bills that would have given Trump his first legislative victory. Still, the Arizona Republican remains in the president's crosshairs; Trump has reportedly said he would be willing to spend millions to help unseat Flake, who is up for reelection in 2018.

— BY DANIEL BUSH

The full transcript is below.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Jeff Flake, the junior U.S. senator from Arizona, is calling for a return to conservatism, and speaking out against those he believes have strayed from those values.

In his new book, "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle," Flake examines where his own party has gone wrong and criticizes the man they helped elect president last November.

I began by asking Senator Flake whether he was, figuratively speaking, trying to throw a bomb into the middle of the Republican Party leadership.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE, R-Ariz.: No, I'm trying to put forward an affirmation of conservative principle, much like Senator Goldwater did in 1960, when he saw his party compromised at that time by the New Deal.

I think, today, our party has been compromised by different elements, like populism, protectionism, isolationism. And I just don't think that that's a governing philosophy moving ahead for the Republican Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you say the party is in crisis. You say it's a crisis of its own making, that the leaders of the party, as you just said, have turned away from principle.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they have turned to things that they don't even believe in. How did this happen?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, for example, on free trade, we're holding as a party an unfamiliar banner.

We have always been the party of free trade, for most of our history at least. The United States helped countries prosper, and therefore we would prosper with them because they would then buy our goods and services, and the rising tide would lift all boats. And now we have kind of become a zero sum game, where some win and some lose, and that we have been losers, and that we have got to get back the winning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how did that happen? You very distinctly go after President Trump. You don't put all the blame on him.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you describe how what he's done and how he's done it has helped pull the party and its leaders away from their core.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Right.

Let me say, part of the book is about policy and where I think we should be on policy. Part of the book is on what a conservative is in terms of demeanor and comportment.

And I think that that's certainly different today, but it's been a gradual drift. The House and the Senate and the White House, and we lost it all in 2006 and 2008, and, frankly, I think we deserved to at that point. But from people standing up and yelling "You lie" when a president was giving his State of the Union address, that was long before President Trump.

But I think it has become a lot coarser. And a conservative is nothing if they're not sober and deliberate and measured in foreign policy, for example, and that we embrace our allies and recognize our enemies. And I think that's missing today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do write — at one point, you says: "It was we conservatives who have maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued."

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said: "To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties and tremendous powers of denial."

I mean, essentially, you're saying the party has enabled this president to do what he's done and that it's both been harmful to the country and embarrassing to the party.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, I think it's not conservative policy and it's not conservative for elected officials, those of us in Congress, to watch this and not say anything.

I'm not saying that everybody has remained silent. There have been many voices who have spoken out, but not enough. And what has gone on with the administration in terms of a chaotic atmosphere, that is not good for domestic policy. It's certainly not good for foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have also voted for some of the administration's initiatives.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: I have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You supported the president's nominees to top offices.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: You bet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have voted for the health care plan that the president wanted last week, even against on the other side from your fellow Arizona senator.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: You bet.

I think the president put together a good Cabinet. I think that the Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, was stellar. This is a person who got a unanimous vote just a few years earlier. The president's initiatives on regulatory policy, I have supported. I think that that's been needed for the economy.

I think his instincts on tax policy are good. But some of the issues, like NAFTA, talking about ripping it up, now they have changed somewhat, nullifying the TPP, I think some of those things are…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The trade pact.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Yes, the trade pact — are profoundly unconservative, and will handicap us for the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What has to happen now? You're calling this president out. You're saying you don't like some of what he's doing, but what are you going to do about it?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: We often want somebody to stand up, but we stand back.

The Congress is responsible to provide checks and balances with the president, more than the judiciary. We're the first branch. And this institution has to stand up for its prerogatives, I think, like an AUMF, authorization for use of military force. We ought to be stepping up to the plate on a bipartisan basis.

And part of the problem is, is that we have become such a — we have become shirts and skins. And we can't get together. And any administration, Republican or Democrat, will take advantage of the chaos in Congress and the dysfunction to sap away even more power and authority.

And when you have an administration that you are concerned about, in terms of its own comportment, and the kind of chaotic environment over there, then it becomes even more urgent that Congress fulfill its role.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where does Congress draw the line? I mean, does — do you — your point is that Congress has been standing back.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a place where you say, this shouldn't stand?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, I do think that. And there were a number of people who stood up with the firing of Jim Comey.

That, to me — a president can fire an FBI director, certainly, but the timing and the rationale was questionable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he succeeded. He fired him.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: He did.

Now, I have been pleased — and this is a good sign — at the reaction when there has been talk about this president possibly firing the A.G., and that possibly …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: The attorney general, and that being a precursor to take other action with regard to the special prosecutor, just speculation, but that's worrisome.

But I have been heartened that a number of my colleagues have stood up and said, no, that will not stand. That — just try to fire the A.G., and think that Congress would stand back.

So I do think that we have got to protect the institutions of government that way, but also we ought to demand, when the president, just the language that's used and the necessary, you know, as I mentioned, comportment and demeanor that should apply to any White House, we ought to call the president out. We ought to call our colleagues out. I would hope the president would call us out if we go too far down that road.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you believe he should stay in office?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Yes. Yes.

He has done nothing that would compel us to remove him from office, but I do think that, you know, nobody is above the law, and we ought to make sure that we remember that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How many Republicans in the Senate and the Congress agree with you on what you're…

(CROSSTALK)

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: In terms of us needing to stand up? I think more than you know, more than you know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why are so few doing — going as far as you?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, you want to.

It's difficult to wake up every morning and see, you know, tweets or policy being put forward that — just take the transgender ban that didn't seem to be well-thought-out. And you think, can I comment on that and this and that? It gets tiresome.

But I think we have a responsibility the stand up and say, no, this is not right. And I hope we do so more in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, the book is "The Conscience of a Conservative."

Thank you very much.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

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