Jeff Flake is a Republican politician and the junior senator from Arizona. A vocal critic of President Donald Trump, Flake announced in October 2017 that he would not seek re-election.
This is the transcript of a two-part interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Jan. 9 and Jan. 23, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
[Donald Trump visits Capitol Hill….] What was the sense around here as he was coming? Anticipation? Dread? What was it?
Well, by the time he got here, it was when he had sewed up the nomination, so it was certainly a lot of fear, a fear that we were going to get trounced in the general election, and if we weren’t trounced in the general election, if he happened to win, then it would change the party significantly. Not many of us worried about that, because we didn’t think he had a chance.
When he came in, tell me the story of the back-and-forth between you two.
Well, he spoke to Senate Republicans, and he was, you know, well into the meeting when a few started to ask questions. I had never had any encounter with him. I never went up to New York to try to raise money for him. I’ve always, you know—my only thought about him and politics was the conspiracy theory that he not only espoused but really forwarded about [President Obama’s] birthplace. I thought that that was unseemly, frankly, and just not becoming of a serious politician.
And so I—I hadn’t met him before. Time for a question, so I—but before I even asked the question, he looked at me and said, “You’ve been very critical of me.” And he said that to everybody. And I mentioned: “Yeah, I had. And by the way, I’m the other senator from Arizona, the one that wasn’t captured.” He had made that remark about John McCain, which I thought was really beneath him.
And so anyway, he went on from there and told me I would lose in November, not knowing that I wasn’t up in November. And anyway, that was our first encounter.
What was the vibe off of him, Senator? What did it feel like? What was he like in this room?
Well, he was certainly confident at that point. He had sewn up the GOP nomination. And you know, this was going to be his party and his way. And he pointed out that he was doing very well in Arizona and that he had Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio with him, and he was going to roll. Anyway, that bothered me, too, with regard to the Hispanic population, given some of the comments that he had made when he first announced, and then about the Mexican judge that he—or the judge born in Indiana who had Mexican heritage, that he couldn’t judge fairly that way. So I just—I was bothered by all of it.
And your colleagues, how were they about this?
You know, at that point, like I said, I don’t think you could find one who felt that he had a chance or would have a chance in the general election, just given the positions that he had taken and things, that he hadn’t really faced an opponent on the Democratic side. Anyway, so I don’t think that there was—I think it was a resignation of “Oh, no, we’ve nominated the one Republican who probably can’t win.”
And just to button up the McCain thing, when he says that to [pollster] Frank Luntz, did you see it? Did you hear about it? What were your thoughts when Trump says that?
I don’t recall if I saw it live or saw it recorded, but I was appalled by it. But it was consistent with other remarks that he had made about other individuals or groups. But boy, to go after a prisoner of war and to say that he couldn’t be respected because he was captured, I think all of us thought, when he made that comment, well, that’s the death knell; that’s what will do him in. And those things just kept piling up and piling up, and he still won.
Did you ever talk to Sen. McCain about it?
Yeah, I did. And Sen. McCain certainly wasn’t encouraging me to defend him or anything like that. But I mentioned it to him, yes.
Senator, on the night of the election, where were you, and what were your feelings?
On the night of the election, I was in Arizona, obviously. I was actually at a victory party for Sen. McCain. We watched in the room as the results came in, to great surprise from everybody, that Donald Trump won.
Your feelings about it?
You know, obviously, surprise was the biggest one. And then you say, “Well, right here is what we can get done with the Republican in the White House and in the Senate, or Republican majorities in the House and the Senate.” For a brief time that night, it looked as if the president might win and we would lose the Senate, and that would have really been kind of a weird outcome. But it became apparent, as the night wore on, that we were retaining control of the House and the Senate. [Would] get the White House. And you thought, well, if this president can pivot and become presidential, and then work with us on a number of these items that we’ve wanted to push for years, then that’s going to be a good thing. So there was some hope then.
[Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that night, or the next day, he says: “Finally, a unified Republican Party. Just watch us now,” right?
Did you share that enthusiasm? Do you know a little more than Ryan?
You know, I’ve probably never shared it to the extent that some did, but there was some hope. When the president spoke that night after winning, it was a very gracious speech, and I thought, man, maybe he will turn; maybe he will. And for a brief moment I think a lot of us held out that hope, at least, that there is the campaign, and here he will be governing as president. But it turned out to [be] not much difference.
That first week [of the Trump presidency] was crazy, chaos, the going to the Pentagon on Friday afternoon. Take me through your reactions in that very first week of what was happening here.
Well, I think, as reporting has kind of said afterward, that the president didn’t think that he was going to be there either, so a lot of what happened in the transition and the ensuing weeks was chaotic. And that’s to be expected. Nobody’s at fault to that, as much as you—you know, you have a transition team to prepare; you’re never fully prepared, even if you think you’re going to win. If you think you’re not, then obviously there are going to be a lot of loose ends to tie up.
We’ve talked to lots of people in the Congress who said, “There was the feeling that, well, we’ve got the House, and we’ve got the Senate, and now we’ve got a Republican pen that, if we could just get him to sign stuff and leave the business of legislating and policy to us…” Were you part of that crowd?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, for a while I thought that that would be the case. I always worried, though. The president, no matter what, if it’s a Republican president, is the titular head of the Republican Party, and that’s who the press goes to. It’s the policies of the president are paramount to—you know, he shapes the platform of the Republican National Committee as basically an arm to promote the president, so there’s no way you can get away from that.
But somebody could be in that position and say: “Hey, I don’t know much about health care. I don’t know much about this issue or that. I’m going to leave that to Congress and let them work it out.” But what we had is just, you know, ongoing drama and chaos at the White House that has really made it very difficult for the House and the Senate to focus on particular topics. We were able to do so on tax reform, not so much on health care.
When we talk to people, they say in that very beginning, there was still a lot of hope. There was still a lot of “Well, he’ll sit in the Oval Office. and the responsibility will land on his shoulders, and he’ll say, ‘OK, who do I get around me to help me with this?’” He sends a signal with [White House Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus, maybe, up to the Hill, and a different kind of signal with [Chief Strategist Steve] Bannon. What did you read from that first press release?
Well, the fact that he named Reince Priebus, I think, most of us were very relieved that he realized that you have to have somebody who understands Washington and how it works, and that he would work with us. But then, to have Steve Bannon in the White House, that was kind of the opposite. But, you know—some of that, you understand, they were part of the campaign; you’ve got to reward them with something.
But we had hoped that, you know, that Priebus kind of wing and the family, you know, Jared Kushner and Ivanka [Trump], certainly seemed, to me at least, as ones that would maybe smooth some of the rough edges and pull him away from kind of the Bannon approach, the nationalist, nativist, protectionist program that Bannon certainly wanted.
… And then there’s this speech, the joint session of Congress speech, where he is—I’ve watched the stock footage many times—he is positively presidential, using the teleprompter, saying some of the right words. What did you think? Where were you in the House? Where were you seated? And do you remember who you were sitting next to?
Yeah. Well, first, before that, you had the inaugural address, which was “American carnage,” and that confirmed a lot of our worst fears. It was just an in-your-face, kind of slash-and-burn speech. But then the State of the Union address was, you know, it was more presidential. I was in the chamber. I was about three or four rows up, where the Republican senators typically are, and at that point, we get drawn into thinking, hey, you can stick to the teleprompter, and maybe it’ll be OK.
It certainly wasn’t an eloquent speech. He doesn’t give many of those. Wasn’t very poetic, you know, and you become used to that. But I’ll take just, you know, something presidential. And I think it was.
And you were hopeful?
You know, a little. But by then, by this time, I think we were deep into the travel ban and some of the other items from the agenda that we—many of us had hoped he would go away from. But he seemed to be, right after. So by that time, there was enough going on that I was certainly concerned.
What was he, playing possum?
I don’t know how to describe it, but some of the policies he was pushing were straight out of the campaign, and they seemed to be continuing the campaign, and that’s never good.
They decide—Ryan decides on Obamacare, on the repeal of Obamacare. From your vantage point, smart move? Good move? Novice president? Ryan takes the lead. What were you thinking when you watched that happen?
I thought the pivot to Obamacare immediately was a mistake. I always thought that that was going to be difficult. It’s been in place for a while. Certainly I’m among those who have always felt that it ought to be repealed and replaced. But moving straight into that, at the expense of some other items that you could get more support for, I think had he gone with taxes at the beginning and expressed a desire to work across the aisle, it might be a different presidency right now. But going straight into Obamacare I think guaranteed that it was going to be polarizing and that we’re going to do it under reconciliation, meaning we would only need Republican support if we could keep everybody together. And I think it was a mistake.
And the president, the novice president, what position does that put him in? What did he think his job was vis-à-vis repeal?
Well, to be fair, the president during the campaign had said, “Day one, we’re going to repeal Obamacare.” That made it sound a lot easier than it is. But you know, somebody who hasn’t been around the Congress and doesn’t understand things take time, [that] the Senate has very peculiar rules that make it easy to delay things and very hard to do anything on a purely partisan basis, and no president can be blamed for not understanding that fully.
And yet he decides to take on a sort of salesman mode, I guess. That’s what happens during that time. But how do you sell a car you don’t understand? A lot of people talk to us and say—
Well, it was clear on this and some other issues that, yeah, he was back and forth a little, and it wasn’t a very consistent message or sales pitch. That made it difficult. He obviously didn’t understand some of the intricacies of the law and what could be repealed, how, so that made it more difficult, certainly.
And even the different positions of Freedom Caucus and others, that there was dimension to the problem that he faced in getting this through the Congress—
Right. Well, you know, no president would have an easy job repealing Obamacare, no matter how disciplined, no matter what their level of understanding of the law was. It’s just a difficult thing to have a law in place, and I think the Democrats knew this well when it was put in place. Much, much easier to put there than to repeal.
… What could they have done, from your vantage point?
Well, I think they could have started with a much smaller agenda on that, get rid of the individual mandate. They ended up doing that in the tax bill. But it would have been better to do that combined, you know, combined with some other measures that we’re going to actually have to do now to shore up the individual market or protect those that are negatively affected by it. It could have been done better, but certainly I think maybe a narrower approach, more realistic approach.
Were you ever in any meetings where he uttered the “Health care is really complicated” sentences?
Yeah, I think he did say that to Senate Republicans at one point. Or maybe I’m conflating that with another time that it was said. But he certainly came to understand that it’s a little more complex.
… This is the Rose Garden ceremony, where all the congressmen are lining up behind him, and he’s—a lot of people say this is an expression of how little he actually understood, that he was spiking the football at the 20-yard line, that actually they haven’t scored a touchdown yet.
There was a long way to go on a bill before they got that one passed. When you watched that moment, what did it tell you about Donald Trump and this presidency?
Well, it was premature. I mean, especially after, you know, George W. Bush with the “Mission Accomplished” banner—he got untold grief for that. This was a similar moment for Donald Trump. He certainly didn’t seem to appreciate the difficulty of taking any piece of legislation from one body to another here, particularly given the margins, that very small Republican margin that we have here in the Senate. So that was certainly premature.
I was watching that, cringing and thinking, man, you know, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, I know. I mean, this was very difficult for the House to pass. It’s tough now to celebrate, but sometimes that celebration makes it a lot more difficult to move it through the Senate.
He then does something that doesn’t make any sense to those of us who watch politics a lot, which is, he then meets with you all and sort of says—and there’s been, meanwhile, town halls and everything else happening out there in the states. Let’s back up just for a second. So that’s all happening while the Rose Garden is going on. This is not exactly going over well. It’s almost like the summer of 2009 all over again, except in reverse.
Well, what was really troubling to members of Congress, and the Senate at that point in particular, is that he did that celebration with the House, and then he came out into the Senate and said, “The House version, that’s a little too mean.” And I can tell you, if you’re a legislator, you’re thinking, is the president going to be with me today and against me tomorrow? You know, all that celebration, and then to come out and say, “Well, I really didn’t like that bill,” that gave a lot of senators pause as to how far we want to go down that road. Will the president be there for us if we pass something and then it turns out it’s not as popular?
Why did he do this? What’s up with that?
I don’t know. I think, frankly, it’s a lot of “Oh, he hasn’t been through this before.” And, you know, it’s different running a private business than it is being the chief executive of the federal government. So, it’s different.
… So the bill moves to the Senate, the skinny bill does, gets rewritten.
There it is, in the United States Senate. Yeah. John McCain has a famous moment, another famous John McCain moment. Take me there to that moment. Did you know what he was going to do when everybody’s watching? You talk about theater in the Senate, and it’s sending a message to a certain president, maybe, or other things. Take me there. Help me with that whole scene, will you?
Well, we weren’t sure what he was going to do. There was some worry that he might go the other way, might vote no. And we wanted to make sure that he—he had earlier said that he wanted to be where the governor was, the governor of Arizona, and the governor had expressed concern about previous iterations of the bill. So I went and talked to him on the floor that night, sat down and said, “You know, the governor is OK with this version.” And he said, “Yeah, I know that.” But he was still, I could tell, at that point leaning no.
Then Mike Pence was there, and Mike was listening to our conversation. And Mike had a conversation with the president as well—or I’m sorry, Mike had a conversation with John McCain as well. And then the governor felt that he needed to express it to John McCain directly, that he was OK with the bill. So we were called into the cloakroom, myself and John McCain, and we got on the line with the governor of Arizona, Gov. [Doug] Ducey. [He] said to John, “I’m OK with this version of the bill, so if you want to know what the governor thinks, that’s where I am.” And there was a longer conversation between the three of us, and then we got off. John went back on the floor, and then the vice president pulled him off the floor, and I think he spoke to the president, and then came back in. So that’s when I, if I recall, that’s when he gave the thumbs down, then voted no. So it was pretty high drama. There were a number of us trying to get a yes vote, and—but he was committed to the no vote.
Why no? Why no?
I think for him, I certainly understood it. I went the other way. But John has decried the movement of the Senate away from bipartisanship, away from regular order, and he felt that this was the time to take a stand. And frankly, as much as I disagreed with it, I admired it. It was classic John McCain.
Any sense that this is also a little bit of payback to the president of the United States for what was said?
No, I really don’t think that. John is, you know, he has a famous temper and can hold a grudge for a while, but he’s also very forgiving. And I’ve never seen him put a grudge over what he felt was right for the country, so I wouldn’t suggest that.
The president of the United States is not happy with the result and goes to Bedminster, [the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.], for vacation. The tweet storm begins. I’m sure we’re landing on [Senate Majority Leader] Sen. [Mitch] McConnell (R-Ky.) as well. Really a lot of things happen during that. That’s fire and fury, or whatever he said. It’s a lot of things while he’s up there on vacation and a lot of tweets. Help me, Senator. Make sense of what was happening there for me.
Well, I mean, this was something that the president had talked about, we had all talked about. And we told people when we ran—some of us weren’t up for re-election—but by and large, the position was, if we get a majority in the House, the Senate and the White House, then we’ll repeal and replace Obamacare. And we weren’t able to do that. That’s a big blow. It’s a huge blow.
We tried to repackage it a couple of different ways. And beyond that, we tried again, one more big attempt that [Sen.] Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and a few others led, to block-grant the program, and that came up short as well. So it was tough. It was tough not being able to deliver on a promise made. But for some of us, you know, we’d given it the old—I mean, virtually all of us had given it the old college try. We certainly had voted that way a number of times before and were prepared to do that, despite it being, certainly, an imperfect bill, knowing that we’d have to come back and change some things, we thought it was important to follow through.
And the president’s reaction, blaming McConnell so viciously, and others?
Yeah. You know, that’s the president. That’s kind of how he operates. Doesn’t mean that he won’t compliment you in the future or work with you in the future. He’s done that a number of times. But his—what he typically does is lash out, and he did. So I don’t think that that’s particularly helpful. I think it’s much better to say: “Hey, we tried. We’ll go back, regroup, try again.” I think it’s easier to move on and actually get something accomplished that way. But that’s not how it was done.
It looks, to people we talk to and ourselves, as we look closely at it, like the president then, at that moment, is done with his apprenticeship of the legislative branch of the government, is going to strike out a little bit on his own, and he’s going to become—he’s much more vociferous in the tweet department, much angrier about a lot of things. Charlottesville is coming right around the corner. What are you thinking when you’re watching the president sort of pull away, in that way, from the legislative process and kind of go his own way, almost into a culture war, not so much a political policy war.
Well, there are a couple of ways you can go at that point. If you—you know, this is something that needed almost every Republican in the House and the Senate to pass. We didn’t quite get there. You can say: “All right, I’m done trying to do things just purely on a partisan basis. I’m going to work across the aisle.” And he made some moves that direction. On DACA he had some meetings with, as he called it, “Chuck and Nancy” [Democrats Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California]. And some of us thought, all right, that’s the direction he’s going. I would have preferred that direction. But then you can also just double down on your base, and, you know, I think that that was Charlottesville and some other moves that he’s made, is just saying, “I’m going to make my base really happy and put pressure on a number of you who have to react to that base to get re-elected.” And I think that works for a certain number of people, but not for everybody.
Had you decided then that you were not going to come back?
When was the vote?
It was in July, late July.
Yeah. No, I hadn’t at that time. I hadn’t even published my book yet. I had been writing it. I had been vocal, certainly, opposing a lot of the president’s initiatives and commented on his behavior, but I hadn’t decided at that point. I only decided in mid-October.
Yeah. So there he is. There it is, and Charlottesville happens. Your response to his Charlottesville tweets?
Well, I reacted in a way that most of my colleagues did as well, that this was not—not where a president should be. There—this was a layup. This was easy, you know. If there’s white supremacy in any form, you condemn it. I mean, that’s the easy thing to do. And he—and he didn’t. And I thought, oh, man, that’s really drilling down on the base, and that’s really, you know, going further than he needed to go.
By now, at some moment—we haven’t talked about this—but the Republican Party itself has been for, predating Trump, going through its own kind of—some people call it a civil war, but certainly its own growing pains and so on, reorganization.
Well, yeah. You know, after the Mitt Romney loss, we came together and did the famous “autopsy” and decided that we needed to appeal to a broader electorate. I certainly subscribed to that feeling. I felt that for a long time. What the president did with Charlottesville is just go sprint the other direction, as with a number of things that he had done. It was basically just run the other way.
And the impact of that on the party, from your point of view?
I think—I mean, you can, as [Republican Gov.] Pete Wilson proved in the mid-90s, in California, with Prop 187, which was restrictive of, you know, benefits to illegal aliens, and it was seen as kind of anti-Hispanic, he was able to rile up the base and win that election, statewide election. But, other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, no Republican has been elected statewide since, and it will probably be a generation or so before another one is. So I do think that it’s caused tremendous damage to the party, long-term.
I wrote in the book that—in the book that I wrote, that the party is—every four-year election cycle, the country, as a whole, is 2 percent less white. George W. Bush won the presidency with 56 percent of the white vote. Mitt Romney lost it with 59 percent of the white vote. We can’t simply ignore the largest growing segment of the population and write that off. You can win an election here or there by doubling down on the base. Certainly some—in a lot of congressional districts you can do that, and some states, and nationally. But only one. I don’t think we’ll go much beyond that. And then we are left to—the party is left to pick up the pieces for decades, or a generation thereafter, and that’s not a good place to be.
Trump didn’t seem to understand that or care about it.
Well, I think—I mean, he says, “Hey, I won.” And the narrative from the White House has been, “I was the only Republican who could have won in the general.” I always thought that that was the only Republican that would have lost. I think the Democrats, there was a bit of fatigue after the last eight years of increased regulation and a poor economy, a poor recovery. I think just about any Republican could have won that race. But the narrative that has been spun is Trump was the only one by, you know, a smashmouth kind of politics. I just don’t buy that, and I think it poisons the well for future elections. And that’s what I’m concerned about. That’s what I wrote about, and that’s really why I’m not running right now.
He was not happy with you. He flew to Phoenix, said some snarky things about you and Sen. McCain. How did that feel?
You know, you never want to have the president of your own party in particular saying bad things about you. But what choice do I have? To me, I just could never wrap my arms around this candidate or this president. It’s just not in me.
Why did he do it, Senator?
Well, I mean, that’s his MO. You fight back. If you’re adversaries, you go after. And maybe you can make up at a future time, but you know, you attack, you attack.
You’re a Republican.
But, you know, I’ve certainly not always lined up with my Republican colleagues. I was hard on our leadership when I was in the House, when I felt our party was drifting away from the principles that had animated the party for a long time. But there’s a way you do it and a way you don’t—to get personal, to call people on the other side of the aisles clowns or losers or invent nicknames for people that are derogatory. That’s just not my style. And I think that, like I said, you could rile up the base. But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy, and sooner or later, people figure that out.
There’s a sort of critical day in our film. He’s walking down the hall with McConnell on his way into lunch with you guys. What happened in that lunch?
There was a standing ovation. And this is—you’re about to give a speech afterward.
Yeah, yeah. Well, I don’t know. That was a little misread. We always stand when the president enters the room. No matter who the president is, that’s done. And when he finishes speaking, there’s always applause, and almost always a standing ovation. That goes with the territory. I don’t think any president ought to read too much into that. But certainly, there are a lot of people in our caucus who like what the president is doing, some who like his style. But—
How was it that day?
But, I mean, this was—it was not the lovefest that it was portrayed as, certainly. It was, you know, “Hey, let’s hear where he is on this issue and see where we go on taxes or whatever else.” But it wasn’t—there was a lot of—there’s been a lot of concern obviously, in the latter part of the year in particular, as these presidential statements or actions have accumulated, that members of Congress, members of the Senate in particular, worried about maintaining the majority and what this is going to do to us, you know, long-term, and embracing candidates like [Alabama Judge and senatorial candidate] Roy Moore and others—
Don’t get ahead of me yet. So you’re in that room. You’re about to go on the floor. Is something said? Is something done in that room that makes you go out and pull the pin, or you had already made up your mind?
No, I had just—I decided to pull the pin. But none of my colleagues knew it at that point, or I told a few of them, “You may want to come to the floor.” I actually told John McCain that I would—was not going to run. I told him that that morning. So he knew, but virtually nobody else.
Can I ask you how hard that was?
It was tough. It was very tough … because we’ve stood together on a lot of these things, and a lot of the resistance to some of the moves and the behavior of the president, so that was a very difficult thing to do.
And walking to the floor, what are you thinking about?
Oh, you know, one, just how fortunate I’ve been to have been in the Congress for 17 years and to be able to go out on my own terms, not because of—well, not because of scandal or being forced out the door, and to be able to be proud of what I’ve done here. And that, you know, increasingly is maybe more of a rare event. So that was on my mind, but also, you know, concern about where the party is and what comes after.
The speech is received. You hear from the president afterward? Is there a tweet that comes to you or comes out about you?
He mentioned—well, let’s see, when was it? Walking to the helicopter or something, he referenced it and said that I was just going to lose anyway, and I was at 18 percent, and, you know, “Good riddance” kind of thing; that I had written a horrible book, and so it was nothing I didn’t expect at that point.
[Sen. Bob] Corker (R-Tenn.) and the “adult day care” back-and-forth over that—how astonishing was that to you?
Oh, it was—I mean, Bob Corker was certainly not happy with the president’s description of his position on a few things, and the president going after his record as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. So Bob was certainly justified in trying to set the record straight. He did it differently than I would, but I certainly stood with Bob.
My God, Senator, have we come to this, senators fighting back with the president on tweets about adult day care?
Yeah, that was—I was in California when I saw that, and I immediately called Bob, talked to him about it. But it’s—it surprised me that it had risen to that level.
Why did it?
Why did it rise to that level? Well, I think when the president comes out and said that, you know, the problems that we’re having around the world are due to Bob Corker as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, you know, you want to set the record straight. And the president saying that Bob had come in and begged for his endorsement when that wasn’t the case, you want to set the record straight, certainly.
I only have a couple minutes, so let me ask you two questions that I just have to get you into the film answering. Roy Moore, the president finally supports him. The Republican National Committee that had gotten out goes back in. Even though Moore loses, it feels at this moment like it’s—that the Republican Party is becoming sort of Trump’s party more and more, despite who Roy Moore was, despite all of it. You supported candidate [Doug] Jones. Your check is shown on a tweet. Talk to me a bit about where you were in that moment about that decision to do that.
Well, I thought that backing Roy Moore was a blight on the party, and that [blight] would last for a long time. And to have the RNC, you know, stand behind him—I was so glad that the NRSC, the [National Republican] Senate Committee, did not. But I thought that I ought to make a real statement and put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and even if it was only $100, so I wrote the check to Doug Jones.
We watch everybody stand on the White House steps. The tax bill has been passed. Of course it’s a great moment. Everybody is kind of glorifying the president. He’s center stage. They did the work, but he’s center stage on a lot of it. What does it tell you? Is it Trump’s party? Now, you’re not there. I’d be happy to know why you weren’t there. But really, is it Trump’s party now? Is that what that signals?
Yeah, I think that’s what it says. And that’s too much the case … it’s the president’s party, and that troubles me.
… I’m going to try not to rush us along, but I want to get some of it covered. You come in 2000 to the Congress, and by 2009 you’ve had one and the beginnings of another president. It’s the summer of 2009. The Obamacare, the town halls, all of it’s happening. The Tea Party will grow out of that summer. Take me to where we are at that moment and what you’ve noticed as the change in the way the American government is working, levels of civility, decency, all the things you talked about in your speech, as you were essentially resigning. What was happening then? What’s happening in 2009?
Well, 2009, with Obamacare being debated and voted on, I remember a massive town hall that I had …I had no idea that it would be that big. We indicated where we were going. We had to get a bigger facility, then a bigger facility, and ended up in an auditorium that was just completely packed, and a very vocal audience. It was the first real experience of the public really being engaged that way.
But then, back here in Washington, you had more dysfunction, frankly, than we’d had before. Just had this level of distrust. And most of my time in Congress, 2000 to 2006, almost all of that time was with, you know, unified government, Republicans controlling the House and the Senate and the White House. So it was different. And I still had my issues with the administration, but it was different now. It was different kind of problems. I found myself more in sync with a lot of my colleagues, but certainly not much was getting done, not much cooperation between the administration and the Congress.
What was the anger and the frustration about?
I think it was a lot of people thinking, how could one party—and the Democrats had, by this time, the House, the Senate and the White House, and had, for a brief period, 60 votes in the Senate, so they could just basically run roughshod, and they did on a few things. That was what the frustration among Republicans was, was a party just intent on having its will. So we still had the issues of distrust on appointment of judges and one party wanting to really gum up the works for the other party. But this, Republicans really got angry, and I think that the country as a whole kind of recoiled a little at that—the march to just, you know, ram things through. But I can tell you, among my constituents, that was the real frustration.
So when the class of 87 newbies comes to town, many of whom are Tea Party people, how does that change the Republican Caucus and the calculus inside Congress?
Well, it was certainly heady times. We took back control with a vengeance. But, you know, with a Democrat in the White House, who was going to be there for at least two more years and maybe more, it just got even more, you know, confrontational.
My sense of the Tea Party people was—and we covered a lot of it—was a kind of naive: “We’re going to knock off Obamacare. We’re going to get everything now. We’re going to say no to everything.” You must have watched that learning curve morph across during that period.
You bet. And, I mean, people who think that they’re going to repeal something that’s called Obamacare while President Obama is in the White House [don’t] understand the separation of powers very well. And so—but there was still that frustration. The Democrats were able to move so much through. We’ve taken control of the House; we should be able to do the same. And it just—you know, it’s not that easy. You can certainly block things from going forward; you can gum up the works, but you can’t repeal. That’s very difficult.
So the rising up that yields [Rep.] Dave Brat (R-Va.) and sends [former House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor (R-Va.) away, eventually the Freedom Caucus comes and takes down Speaker [of the House John] Boehner (R-Ohio). When you watched that happening, what then? Did you feel like forces were being unleashed? It feels like there’s a kind of process taking place in the Congress. What were you seeing?
Well, by the time Dave Brat beat Eric Cantor in the primary, I was here in the Senate and had been working on a bipartisan immigration bill that we worked and negotiated for seven months and took through the process. And it was a good experience. It was actually, you know, the Senate working like the Senate used to. Democrats were in control of the Senate at that time, but we had a process where it was a bipartisan bill.
And then Eric Cantor lost when, just prior to that, we thought that we had a good shot of moving that bipartisan bill through the House. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and others supported it, but—and Speaker Boehner, I think, was ready to let it go, but then Eric Cantor lost his primary, and the perception was—I don’t think the reality, but the perception was—it was over immigration. And that just—that killed our chances on that bill.
And, you know, ever since, it’s just been rancor and tougher to move anything, because you have, in the House, you’ve always had this phenomenon that we should be able to control and move things, because having a majority in the House is a lot different than having a majority in the Senate. You can, through the rules process, you can move things a lot easier. And it’s intensely frustrating to be in the House—I know; I was there—just to see legislation you pass die in the Senate. Even when you have a Republican majority in the Senate, a lot of it dies because there aren’t 60 votes. So it’s frustration.
So along inside that environment of frustration and anger, out in the country and mirrored in Washington, comes Donald Trump down that golden escalator, and, by the way, mentioning—speaking of immigration, mentioning Mexican rapists, etc., as he starts to ride to the top. When you saw that announcement, when you saw Trump coming, did you feel a kind of shudder about “Wow, something really different is coming,” or were you, in those early days, more sanguine about who Trump was?
Yeah, when Donald Trump first came down the escalator, I was saying, “Well, this is bad for the party,” just to have anybody gaining traction that espoused those views and talked like he did, particularly about minority groups. He’d already espoused birtherism and things that I thought were just abhorrent. And I had been through the loss with Mitt Romney, when we all came together and said, “All right, we need to appeal to a broader electorate, we Republicans, you know. If we want to win national elections going forward, we’ve got to do better.”
And then Donald Trump comes along, and boom, we’re not just back to where we were, but we’re taking three or four steps back. And that, to me, was just not what we should be doing. But at that time, I thought he’s still a marginal figure; there’s no way that he’ll be able to make it to the convention and through the convention. And pretty early on, he decided he wanted to come to Arizona, and I wrote a letter to the county Republican chair and said: “Don’t invite him. Let’s not have somebody that espouses those views representing—or the Republican Party collaborating with somebody like that, because it will do damage to the party long term.”
And that’s how you got on his list. So that, when you meet him the summer of 2016, that moment that we’ve already asked you about happens. Let me jump down now to the Rose Garden ceremony where they’re celebrating the House passage of the Obama repeal-and-replace portion before it comes to you guys. Meanwhile, out in the town halls all over America, a rerun of what happened in 2009 is happening, except the Democrats are hollering, and other people in America, about the problem with [the] health care bill.
Well, I thought when I saw that celebration, that’s pretty premature. You know, things come to the Senate a little more difficult. We’d seen, during the process here, the 2013 shutdown over attempts to repeal Obamacare by appropriation. Hadn’t worked very well. So … it was just one more example of the country just see-sawing back and forth between extremes and not saying, “All right, there are parts of Obamacare that are so entrenched; now let’s find ways to plow around that stump and do what we can.” Instead, we said we’d go for the full repeal and just couldn’t do it.
… When do you begin to write the book? When do you come up with the idea of “I think I need to write a book about this”?
No, actually, in the summer of ’16, when Donald Trump was just kind of ascending, just before the convention, I thought at that time, I ought to write a book about what happened to Republicans and why we didn’t win this election, and what we’re going to have to do to win future elections,” assuming the whole time that Hillary Clinton, after the conventions, would be the president.
But then, you know, Donald Trump was elected. And I had talked to the publisher, and talked to some people, and I thought, at that time, they’d say, “Well, there goes that; the scenario has changed.” But they said, and I agreed, that there’s probably even more of a market out there of people thinking, where does the Republican Party go now? The dog has caught the car. (Laughs.) Where do we go? So that’s why I wrote the book. And I just didn’t—I just couldn’t see our party go in that direction, and felt I had to do it.
I heard that you were writing it in secret. Were you?
Yeah. I didn’t want my staff here to know. One, if they’re good staff, they would talk me out of it. And my campaign staff, the same way. They’re good professionals, and they would have certainly wanted to talk me out of it, and I didn’t want to be talked out of it.
So when did you write it?
But I also didn’t want them to be blamed, too. I wanted to take it on myself. So now, a lot of it I had written, the portions about my time in the House, I’d kept a journal on the way home. Every week I’d write kind of a tongue-in-cheek look at the week in Washington and then posted it on our family website. I have 10 brothers and sisters, and my wife convinced me that if I waited for them to call me every weekend to ask what went on, that I’d spent all weekend on the phone. So I did that. So I had a lot of the book already written. But the other parts, late nights and plane flights.
… The president decides to fly to Phoenix and, without mentioning your name and Sen. McCain’s name, pretty much gut-punches you guys. What did he know about your voters that he was successful with in that speech, and going to Phoenix?
Well, I think he knew at that time that I was out of step with a lot of the Republican base, that he represented more of their feelings than I did, so he was ready to go forward—particularly those who were at a rally and those who vote in Republican primaries. I think he knew that he had the upper hand there.
How did that feel, Senator?
You know, you never like the president to go after you in front of the home crowd. But worse for me would have been to have my voters and my family and friends think that I stood with the president in expressing the feelings that he expressed and exhibiting the behavior that he exhibited. That to me was worse.
So let me ask you this question. Before you give the speech, why did you decide to retire, and how hard was it to make that decision?
It was tough. I mean, I had been in the Congress for 12 years in the House. I initially didn’t think I’d go that long. Then in the Senate for a term. I would have liked to have done one more term in the Senate under different circumstances, but I couldn’t bring myself to support the president’s—I couldn’t bring myself to support the president’s policies, many of them, and I certainly couldn’t bring myself to condone the president’s behavior. That just—that wasn’t in the cards. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it during the campaign; I couldn’t do it during the first year of his presidency.
That being the case, I had two choices; one, to try to change my behavior and to be more aligned with the president, and that wouldn’t be genuine on my part; or I felt as well, this is an important year ahead, and somebody needs to stand up and say: “This is not our party. This is not behavior that we should condone. We shouldn’t be OK with this. This is not normal,” because for the long term, I’m very concerned about the direction of the party, and I felt it was more important to do that.
When you give the speech, the words “decency,” “debase,” there’s all kinds of very important phrases that you obviously felt needed to be said. Tell me what you wanted to say. What did you say there that really mattered to you?
I wanted to say that this is not our party; we shouldn’t be OK with this; that for the future, if we want to win national elections and be worthy of winning national elections, we’ve got to behave differently; that this country is not the kind of country that, you know, you can win an election here or there by appealing to the baser instincts, but it’s not a long-term strategy. Anger and resentment is not a governing philosophy. And I thought that people needed to hear that. And it was certainly cathartic for me to say it on the Senate floor. So I just, you know, at that time, I felt that was a more important way to go.
People have said: “Why didn’t you stay and fight? The honorable thing to do is stay in the party. It’s been your party. If you believe in the party and the principles of the Republican Party, you should stay and fight.” The problem with that is that, you know, you don’t wage a campaign alone. You have to have volunteers; you have to have supporters; you have to have donors. You have to have people with you, and they want you to win. They’re not going to fund and volunteer for an effort just to make a point.
And I could have kept my positions and stayed true to myself and run a losing campaign, but that didn’t appeal to me. I felt that it was more important to take the time that I would be spending out on the campaign trail or raising money for what would be a losing effort if I ran the kind of campaign that I could be proud of, and instead spend my time in the Senate, in a final year, trying to speak truth to power, to give a series of speeches on the Senate floor about where I think the party ought to be and then where Americans are and should be, and on policy issues as well, very important issues we’re dealing with now on foreign policy and trade and immigration and taxes and health care, all the things that require a lot of time and attention.
Were you disappointed that more of your colleagues, your Senate colleagues, Republican Senate colleagues, didn’t publicly come out and support you? I mean, I saw Sen. McCain, and I have listened carefully to what the leader said, but that there weren’t more public hosannas for you, for this stand?
Oh, frankly I was gratified by what was there. I didn’t expect anything. I expected, at that time, to be the only one on the floor.
Oh, because of, you know, people. You know, this is partisan politics. You stick with the president; you stick with the party. And voicing support for somebody who’s voicing a different message, that’s a tough thing to do. So I, frankly, was very gratified by who showed up and who stood up and spoke. That certainly, for me, it was more than I expected.
When the tax bill gets passed, a lot of people say this is a wallpapering moment; this really doesn’t fix anything. It just looks like the Republicans are all together. What do you say?
Well, I mean tax reform is something that we’ve all favored for a long time. And I read editorials and hear commentary, where people say, “Well, if you oppose the president on some policies and his behavior, you ought to vote against everything he supports and hobble him.” That’s one word that’s used often; that that’s my responsibility. And I’ve never seen it that way. On health care, for example, I had voted 30 times to repeal and replace Obamacare before the president came along and shared our position. I shouldn’t vote differently just out of spite for the president or because I have differences with him. The same is true on tax policy.
But, I mean, it obviously, you can do things under reconciliation with only 51 votes, you know. There are a few things, health care and tax policy. But now we’re done with that, and that’s where you see if we can actually make this place function. And it’s been very difficult.
Is that the moment that it’s Trump’s party, or did that happen earlier, the Republican Party is Trump’s party?
I think it was Trump’s party when he got elected. You know, we had hoped that maybe people would stand firm on some policies. You saw some of that. And you still see, for example, just recently the president announced tariffs on solar panels and washing machines, and a few Republicans have stood and said, “That’s not the direction to go.” But it’s pretty muted criticism.
… I watched the standing on the stairs, that photograph, you know, when the tax bill was passed and the sort of cloying things people said about it. …
Yeah. And yeah, the public displays, you know, at bill signings, I couldn’t do it. Just frankly, it’s very disheartening to see what looks like, for all intents and purposes, a kind of a personality cult. And that’s tough to see, it really is, from your party. It’s one thing to support the president and whatnot, but when you see his Cabinet meetings and to see what’s said over and over again, I think, we’re better than this; we shouldn’t be doing this.
The “shithole” comment in the midst of what was happening in the last two weeks: Your response?
Well, I wasn’t in that meeting, gratefully, but I was in a meeting right after it and heard about it before it went public. And it was appalling, frankly, not just because of the indecent language … that would be used in that forum, but for what it represented about immigration and a failure to recognize, I think, what this country stands for. You can, you know, say that certain people shouldn’t be coming to the country because of character traits that they have or what they represent themselves, but to basically say that nobody should come from countries that are disadvantaged really betrays what this country really is.
… So what happens now? You leave Washington next January, leaving behind a public service, in this sense. Whither Washington under Donald Trump? What happens as you pull out your crystal ball and worry about the future?
You know, I don’t know. I think for the long term you’re going to have Republicans say, “We shouldn’t have been so accepting of this.” I think nothing focuses the mind like a bad election, and I fear that that’s coming for Republicans, whether it’s the midterms or, you know, the next presidential election. Then maybe we’ll turn around and say, “All right, we’ve got to change.” For Republicans, obviously, I think the autopsy we did before, as I mentioned, I think that that is valid. You can rile up the base for an election cycle or two and still win, but you can’t govern, and you can’t hold that for long. So I think, more than likely, it will be a failed election. And we’re seeing signs of that in special elections going on right now.
One question: The process of deciding to release the book, of giving the speech that you give, of sort of becoming the latest critic in the Senate, was that, from the beginning, was there a moment? Were there things along the way that you were watching from the president that made you decide to do that? What was the process that led to that?
Well, when I was writing the book, I knew I was going to release it at some point, so I knew that was coming. I didn’t, at that time, decide that I wasn’t electable and decide not to run. I felt, at some point, that the fever would cool and that people would see, hey, those who stood up and stood up for the party and its principles, we ought to still elect them. As we got further along, it became clear that I would have to change quite a bit in order to fit in with today’s Republican Party, to fit in with the Trump version of the Republican Party.
After I released the book, a few months after that, it was pretty clear that I was out of step with my party. Giving the speech was just, you know, I had to at some point give people a chance to run for the seat and to announce my intention, and I thought that I ought to outline in a speech where I think the party is going and where it should be going and the dangers of moving ahead, being the party of Trump. So that’s what I did.
What would Barry Goldwater have done?
I’ve kind of discussed that in the book. I use that refrain. I do recall the time, and I mentioned it in the book, back when the John Birch Society was ascending and was associating itself with the Republican Party, and you had responsible conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater have a very deliberate attempt to distance themselves from the John Birch Society. They said, and the phrase was, that it represented an “emblem of irresponsibility” that was not good for the party or the conservative movement. And I think that that’s a pretty apt description of what we face today. We have very much an emblem of irresponsibility heading the party and directing where the party is going. And that’s not good for the Republican Party, for the long term.