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Former Sen. Jeff Flake on why Republicans aren’t disavowing Trump’s ‘awful’ words

It's been a tumultuous week in Washington, amid fallout from President Trump’s racist attacks on four members of Congress, all women of color. On Thursday, Trump held a rally in North Carolina, where his words -- and the crowd’s -- took the controversy to a new level. Former Arizona Senator and CBS Contributor Jeff Flake joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what he calls Trump’s "awful" rhetoric and the Republican response.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One day after chants of "Send her back" erupted at a reelection rally for President Trump, Republicans struggled with how to respond.

    As White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor reports, the controversy surrounding Mr. Trump's tweets that four progressive congresswomen should return to their native countries shows no sign of going away.

  • Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.:

    Too much emphasis is being played on certainly rallies and chants and what happens. We need to make sure that we have got the right policies.

  • Question:

    But they're repeating the president's language.

  • Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.:

    I have got to run.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In North Carolina, a controversial chant.

  • Crowd:

    Send her back! Send her back!

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, on Capitol Hill, Republicans playing defense, as the fallout over President Trump's racist tweets deepens.

    At a rally in Greenville last night, the president again falsely accused Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of supporting terrorist groups. The Muslim Minnesota lawmaker is a naturalized American citizen who came to the U.S. as a Somali refugee.

    The crowd, including children, chanted "Send her back."

    This morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy downplayed the president's role in the chants.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.:

    He said it was a small group off to the side. What the president did, the president didn't join in. The president moved on.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But others offered slight pushback.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    The point is, they're all American citizens, entitled to their voice. And when they do provocative things, they're going to be met with provocation. So this is a two-way street.

  • Sen. John Kennedy, La.:

    I'm just ready to move on. I mean, this is — I don't hate anybody. I think this is America. You're entitled to your opinion.

  • Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.:

    I believe he is fascist.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, Omar responded.

  • Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.:

    This is what this president and his supporters have turned our country that is supposed to be a country where we allow democratic debate and dissent to take place. And so this is not about me. This is about us fighting for what this country truly should be and what it deserves to be.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I wasn't happy with it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    At the White House, President Trump told reporters he didn't agree with the chants. He claimed that he tried to talk over them at the rally.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I started speaking very quickly. It really was a — I disagree with it, by the way. But it was quite a chant. And I felt a little bit badly about it. But I will say this. I did. And I started speaking very quickly.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But, actually, Mr. Trump did pause.

  • Crowd:

    Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back! Send her back!

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    He said he would attempt to stop those chants in the future.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I would try. I would certainly try.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last night, the president succeeded in firing up the crowd, but many of his claims, specifically about Representative Omar, were not based in fact.

    The president accused Omar of praising the terrorist organization al-Qaida, which is not true. Mr. Trump also falsely said she — quote — "hates Israel and hates Jews."

    Omar is openly critical of Israel and its influence in America. She has apologized for comments that she said were not intended to be anti-Semitic.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    But everyone knows that's nonsense.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also brushed off criticism that he is helping to advance racism in America by not speaking out more against the president's rhetoric.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    We ought to tone the rhetoric down across the country, using, throwing around words like racism, you know, kind of routinely applying it to almost everything. Let's talk about the issues.

  • Joseph Biden:

    Did you see or hear Trump's rally last night? It was despicable.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Democrats, meanwhile, seized on the rally, including presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

  • Joseph Biden:

    To stand and attack those four women in the way he did, talking about them going back home, the racist, basic taunts.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    There's no sign President Trump will abandon his efforts to stoke racial tensions ahead of the 2020 election.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To weigh in on the president's rhetoric and the response to it, I'm joined by the former Republican Senator from Arizona Jeff Flake.

    Senator Flake, thank you very much for joining us.

    I know you have been following what the president's been saying this week. What's your reaction?

  • Jeff Flake:

    Well, it's, frankly, an awful thing to say, "Go back to where you came from." It's just not commission we ought to countenance.

    And it's damaging. It's damaging, obviously, for the president and his standing, but it's nothing that any of us ought to stand for.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And as you listen to some of your former colleagues, a number of them have, we know, stood by the president. Others are saying that they find what he's saying unacceptable or, in the words of Senator Tim Scott, racially offensive.

    How do you read what members of your own party are saying as they hear this?

  • Jeff Flake:

    Well, I would like to see more pushback, obviously, on the president's language. But I have wished that for a while.

    On something like this, it's much like the phrase, you know, calling the press the enemy of the people. If it's used often enough, and unless there's enough pushback, it becomes normalized, and it puts journalists in danger, you know, worldwide.

    Something like this just — you know, it erodes our value, our standards and our standing in the world. And just — it's something that nobody ought to stand for. There's no good, you know, excuse for this kind of language.

    And so I wish that my Republican colleagues wouldn't even try and simply say, Mr. President, this is unbecoming of the office, you shouldn't say it, and you ought to apologize, and certainly not stand by and listen to people chant it at your rallies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of that, the president said today at the White House — he said that he disagreed with the chant and he said, "I spoke quickly" as it was under way.

    But, of course, we have gone back and listened to what happened last night. And there was a — 10, 11, 12 seconds of chanting before the president spoke again.

  • Jeff Flake:

    Well, just roll the tape. If there was disagreement with what was being said, it wasn't voiced by the president. There was no indication.

    And, of course, what was said was simply paraphrasing what the president had said, which he has really not disavowed. He's phrased it differently now, but he hasn't apologized for it. Obviously, he should.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why do you think more Republicans are not speaking out and calling out the president?

  • Jeff Flake:

    Well, obviously, those who are close to reelection don't want to see any distance between themselves and the president.

    The president is very popular among primary voting Republicans. And my colleagues know that. And so it's difficult to politically to stand up. But, I mean, that should be no excuse.

    For me, when I was deciding whether I would run for reelection, you know, one of the things that I had to consider and what weighed most heavily on my mind is having to stand with the president on a campaign stage, if he were to campaign with me, which he would have, I assume, if he didn't oppose me in Arizona.

    And I would have had to have been OK when people chanted "Lock her up," for example. I would have had to have been OK when he ridiculed my colleagues, my Democratic colleagues in the Senate, or ridiculed minorities in my state, or my colleague John McCain.

    And I determined I simply couldn't do that. There are limits, and I think that the president has long tested them. And I would hope that we would stand up, as Republicans, and say, we cannot normalize this kind of behavior.

    It's one thing, you know, to support somebody more progressive or a Democrat. You know, political pendulums do swing. My concern is that, when the political culture changes, that it doesn't snap back. It doesn't — that pendulum doesn't swing as well, particularly given the overlay of social media…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Jeff Flake:

    … and the way that politics are structured today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just wanted to quote one of the current sitting members of Congress from your home state of Arizona.

    Paul Gosar tweeted just a day or two ago. He tweeted, was referencing the president's criticisms of the four women, members of Congress. He has a picture of them. And he said above that, "More like four horsewomen of the apocalypse."

  • Jeff Flake:

    Yes, I have heard that a few times from others as well.

    That's unbecoming. Mr. Gosar has a bit of a history of making outrageous comments like that.

    So I would hope that more Republicans would actually condemn what is said, rather than excuse it, and maybe up the ante, as we're seeing here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think this is a political strategy, though, Senator, that could work for President Trump?

  • Jeff Flake:

    I do think that a certain number of his supporters do like it. You saw it at the rally.

  • Crowd:

    Send her back! Send her back!

  • Jeff Flake:

    And it may harden them and make them more excited to come out and support the president.

    I think, overall, though, it turns off millennials, certainly, suburban women, others that we need in the coalition as Republicans to win.

    So I think that the president definitely is using it as a strategy to really buoy up the base. But this kind of base politics, you know, you can win an election here or there, but, over time, it wears.

    And, frankly, I think that 2020 will be a time when it's worn too thin. I just don't see how you can offend so many groups and still have a coalition big enough to win.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Senator Jeff Flake of the state of Arizona, we thank you.

  • Jeff Flake:

    And thank you.

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