Congressional Correspondent, NPR
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered national politics since 2002.
This is the transcript of a two-part interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Dec. 22, 2017 and Jan. 24, 2018. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Describe for me, will you, the state of the GOP in Washington in the days, the hours, before Donald Trump became their president. What were they like? What were the factions? Where were the fractures, and what were they thinking as they watched Donald Trump get elected?
The thing I always tell people is that, especially in this first year, where people like to say to the media, “Well, none of you thought he was going to win,” I cover a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill, and they say, “None of you in the media thought he was going to win,” and I always say, “Well, none of you did either.”
I remember in the days and weeks leading up to the race, it’s not uncommon for Republicans on Capitol Hill to have informal conversations about “What do you think the agenda is going to be next year?,” “What’s going to happen after the election?,” try and get a sense of where people are at. Across the board, they thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president of the United States. I talked to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) just this week, and he said the night before the election, Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ senator from New York, called him and said, before the election returns were in, and said, “I hope we can work together next year; I hope it will be an era of cooperation, and I look forward to working with you,” assuming he would be Senate majority leader and Hillary Clinton would be president of the United States.
And McConnell said, after it was clear that Donald Trump was going to be president, he called Chuck Schumer back and said, “I hope I can also count on that same level of commitment for cooperation.” The level of confidence that Donald Trump was going to win, I always think, was very low, even among the smartest minds in the party and even among congressional leaders. They were betting on a Clinton victory. I think that they were looking at the same data everybody else was and just thought the scales would tip in her favor.
I always say that they weren’t really prepared for this. They weren’t prepared for a Donald Trump presidency the way they would have been preparing if [Sen.] Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had been the nominee or if [former Gov.] Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) had been the nominee. There would have been policy agendas, planning, coordination, what the first 100 days were going to be. I mean, the level that you would normally see of coordination among senior party leaders, none of that was there.
So when it becomes clear that Donald Trump was going to be president, I just think there was this collective recognition that they were not ready for this, that they were not ready for what it meant in terms of how to govern. They hadn’t had the House, the Senate and the presidency since toward the end of the George W. Bush administration. It had been almost 10 years since they’d been in power. A significant number of Republicans in Congress had never served in the majority, so they didn’t even know how to govern. We were still dealing with a relatively new wave of lawmakers who had never served in political office before, so they weren’t ready for what it means to have to write legislation and govern.
I think that the best example of that is when it became clear to them that they were going to have to try and make good on this, I guess going on seven-year promise, to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. It had been a great campaign line. It had helped deliver them House and Senate majorities. It was the single unifying campaign promise of the Republican Party. Every single Republican Party [member] elected to Congress campaigned on repealing and replacing some or all of the Affordable Care Act.
So they’re handed power, and they have no plan, right? I mean, that is the best sign to you that they didn’t know this was going to come, because if they were certain that this was going to be their fate, they would have been much readier for this.
Or even marginally.
Or even marginally confident that this was—
It might happen.
On the other end of election night, they would be planning a 100-days agenda. I also just think … that because Donald Trump ran such an unusual candidacy and campaign operation, and because Mitch McConnell and [Speaker of the House] Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are such traditional, methodical, well-run politicians, it was just this clash of managerial style, right? They didn’t even have the things like staff meetings just to coordinate how the transition was going to go in the first 100 days and what the agenda would be. Everything was just kind of being figured out as they went along. There was just a sense of no one really knowing who to even call, right? Who do you call to get the president on the phone? Who do you call on a staff level? Who do you call to coordinate how you’re going to get the principals to speak?
… So it was a get-to-know-you phase, too, in terms of staff and coordination and how to make this government work, and also the recognition that Donald Trump won promising a lot of things that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and congressional Republicans don’t support and how they were going to reconcile the campaign promises and the reality of what most Republicans in Congress actually believe.
Well, and one other thing had to happen. Hatchets had to be buried here and there, right? Certainly Paul Ryan’s words would come back to haunt him here and there when after the Access Hollywood tape he said, “I can’t support this guy.” His lack of endorsement for the longest possible time, those things must have been in the air, especially with somebody like Donald Trump?
Especially because Donald Trump seems to never forget his grudges, right? He’s someone who’s proud of sort of never forgetting the ones who have wronged him and the ones who have stuck by him. I think it’s fair to say about Paul Ryan, because I think he would say this about himself, he’s not very good at politics, right? He’s not a political animal. I don’t think he’s as naturally suited toward it as someone like Mitch McConnell is, who sort of loves the chess game and the strategy of politics. He’s always kind of seen himself as a policy person, as someone who would rather focus on math and spreadsheets than figure out what the best political call is.
He didn’t make the right political call when he came out after the Access Hollywood tapes and criticized Donald Trump, but I also think it’s what he felt was the right thing to do. I just think he was so overwhelmed and so disgusted by the things that he had heard that he came out fast, he came out swiftly, and I don’t think he realized that a lot of the rank-and-file Republicans, they had a conference call in which he had made comments criticizing the president, suggesting maybe he should get out of the race, that he couldn’t support him.
… I think that the speaker and the president have been able to bury that hatchet. In some ways, this is the nature of politics. You have to kick the crap out of people for the duration of the campaign, and then you need to figure out a way to work together. I think it might be easier for him to do that than the president sometimes, and I think he has more incentive to do that than the president does sometimes, particularly because the president ran against the establishment in his own way. …
That speech at the joint [address to Congress in February 2017]… What’s [Trump] trying to say with that? When Paul Ryan sits behind this guy, he’s received Priebus as an early sign. Now he’s sitting behind him watching him give that speech. What do you figure Ryan is thinking as he hears the delivery, or watches the delivery?
I think there was a lot of optimism from Republicans about Trump in that they saw how popular he was with the public… They loved the idea of him as a messenger.
I also just think [he] thought that it would be easy to work with Trump … That the president just wanted wins, right? He just wanted to be able to say he was winning. He wanted to be able to point to a work product.
So there was a view from Capitol Hill, and I would say even among some Democrats in the beginning — lot of Democrats are from red states where Donald Trump carried their states and they saw maybe this could be a bipartisan president. That as long as they could deliver to him what they believed was right, that he would sign it, right? That would be an easy White House to work with and that he wouldn’t be particularly combative about the details. It was just about get me bills and I’ll sign them…
… So Trump is impatient, and Trump’s White House is impatient with the legislative branch. Ryan wants to deliver on the seven-year promise. Let’s just spend a moment in here so that you can describe to me what his caucus is composed of. … What does he face? Republicans aren’t Republicans; they’re all kinds of things. So who does he have to corral in order to get this legislation across the finish line?
… There’s still this really profound disagreement among Republicans about how big the government should be and what role it should play in your life. I mean, this debate is still ongoing. And there’s still a significant part of the Republican Party that does believe that the government has some role in providing you things like health care. I think when you look at how hard it was to get agreement on Medicaid, the program that was expanded under the Affordable Care Act that helped provide health care to millions more Americans, the idea that you could just end that or that you could end this or fundamentally overtake the system or redo it or just repeal Obamacare [root] and branch, as many of them campaigned on, just became really not feasible for a lot of Republicans, particularly Republicans in places where they have significant numbers of senior citizens. Medicaid isn’t just about health care; it applies to a lot of senior citizens, to sick kids, to the most vulnerable Americans, and the political realities of touching those programs are still true. People rely on these programs, and they’re much harder. …
So the ideological divides within the party about this question of how much government do we need in our lives is still hard to find a common ground, and that job falls on people like Paul Ryan. He thought he had a pretty good solution. And in the House they did, right? Initially on the health care bill, they got an initial bill through the House. That was a huge lift. That was a really hard thing to do, and I think it had Republicans feeling really confident, right? The first couple months of this year, they were feeling like this was going to be big.
… Take me to the moment where Ryan has to drive over to the White House and say to the president of the United States, “We’re going to pull the bill.”
At this point, we—and when I say “we,” I mean reporters covering the Hill—weren’t fully aware that this was what Ryan was going to do. We had heard that he was headed over to the White House, and in this meeting he tells the president, “We don’t have the votes; we should pull it.” By all accounts, the president is furious, right? I don’t think he understands why. Again, I still think the best frame to understand Trump’s attitude toward Congress is that they work for him, particularly Republicans, and that “We won this election, and you work for me, and you should do these things.” So I think he’s angry. …
Finally, after they pulled it the first time, they do get it together. The Freedom Caucus people and others get what they want in the bill, and there’s this strange moment at the Rose Garden. … Tell me about that.
It was comical. I mean, it was funny and unusual to watch, as someone who has seen lots of bills pass the House that don’t go anywhere, to have a Rose Garden ceremony. I would say that’s more about the White House wanting to have optics. It was not being driven—I think most members thought it was weird, too. Staff that I talked to about that event was just kind of like: “The White House wanted it. We went along to go along.” I think they needed a pep rally; I think they needed the feeling like it was a win. But even at that moment, at that time, it was like you don’t want to be too confident about this. I mean, the Senate is just going to be a whole other level of challenge for this law.
Do you look like you’re gloating, and do you look like you don’t know what you’re doing? The answer to that was a little bit of yes, right, that they had this public victory celebration and they weren’t even at the 50-yard line, right? This was the first of multiple steps that it would have taken to get the bill to the president. Then the bill heads over to the Senate, and it gets worse.
While they’re in the Rose Garden… the town meetings are happening, people are hollering. It’s an echo of ’09 and the sort of public appearance of the Tea Party, except it’s in another dimension. It’s activated a kind of nascent Democratic base and other things. And the president isn’t aware of this… There’s real blowback to the legislation that they’re celebrating in the garden.
…Healthcare is always the debate that breaks through because everyone in their life will need it. It’s not unusual to have elderly parents who need help, or sick kids or have somebody who’s gone through cancer or went through a period of your life when you’re uninsured. So it’s a deeply emotional debate because it is one of those issues where it really does connect voters to an issue and to their government. And it’s very easy to manipulate that emotion. People feel very passionate about their healthcare…
… And you’re kicking a hornets’ nest of millions of Americans, disabled Americans, children, seniors, uninsured, newly insured, who are now terrified that they could lose their health insurance coverage. So it just created an environment that I also don’t think Republicans are really politically ready for. And then in their own microcosms where, again, the singular unifying pledge of the Republican Party was we’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare, and we’re going to give you something better. And they couldn’t deliver on that.
So it made them look foolish to their voters and it angered their donors who had been feeding their campaigns and supporting them believing that they were going to be able to deliver on their ideas and they couldn’t.
… So now the bill is in the hands of Mitch McConnell. You did a very good job of setting up who is Paul Ryan as speaker. Who is Mitch McConnell as majority leader? …
He’s inscrutable in a lot of ways, but I think he’s cultivated the image of inscrutable. I think he gets that it serves him well. He’s a very deliberate person. He never speaks without purpose. He doesn’t say things by accident. He rarely makes news if he doesn’t intend to. A senator once joked to me that if you had to call a friend and needed to bury a body, Mitch McConnell is the friend that you would call who would help you and never bring it up again, but [who] might need a favor from you years down the line.
He’s an inside player, right? He’s not somebody who I think has any kind of public popularity like a [Sen.] John McCain (R-Ariz.) or a Ted Cruz, even among conservatives. He’s not even that popular in his own state, right? In the state of Kentucky, he has higher disapproval ratings than approval ratings. He’s not Mr. Popularity. He doesn’t care, right? He is a tactician. The only job he’s won in politics is the one he has right now, Senate majority leader. Unlike most people that come through the Senate, Mitch McConnell never harbored presidential aspirations. And he is a very traditional conservative.
I would never describe him as an ideologue because I think he is someone who always sees it more about points on the board than winning an ideological fight; that he’s a legislator; he’s a negotiator. He wants to get a deal; he wants to pass something. He is also—he kind of has enemies on all sides. Even before Trump, he had become a target of sort of the insurgent right or the Tea Party right for his role in stomping out Tea Party candidates in a lot of competitive primaries. I think it was in 2014, the midterm elections, where he had a famous line where he told The New York Times, “We’ll crush them everywhere.” And they did. You know, none of the candidates that ran against the candidates Mitch McConnell supported won.
Those kind of statements and actions have always built up a little bit of the mythology of Mitch McConnell, that he is an incredibly smart tactical player [and] that he understands politics better than anyone; that he is a very good vote counter in the Senate, and he knows what it takes to cut a deal.
One of the things that it appears he decided to do was take this all, put it in a room, make it a secret, rewrite it. Twelve or 14 white men did it. The president of the United States wasn’t included in the conversation in any way. That must have been an interesting conversation. That’s his strategy.
That’s a good point. I forgot about the optics of the initial health care working group, that they announced this working group, and it’s all white men. They got a lot of flak for that, and his office was angry about it and said it wasn’t just about them; anybody could have come in. But that’s what I say where I talk about Republicans not really understanding the politics of health care and how to talk about it and what that image would look like. It was kind of remarkable that nobody in the room said, “This might not be the best way to try and sell what we’re going to do to this bill.”
In some ways, McConnell is like Trump in that I don’t think he had very specific policy demands either. Of the players in this negotiation so far, Paul Ryan is the policy guy. He is the one with a vision of what he wants [health care] to look like. Mitch McConnell’s tactical decision is, “What can I get the votes to pass, and then I’ll work you from there.” He’s not the one saying: “I need this in the bill. I won’t bring anything to the floor if it doesn’t have this in it.”
He’s trying to move all these chess pieces, and he’s got a two-vote margin of error. Senators are also much more independent than … members of the House. A third of them are up for re-election in 2018. They run statewide. They have much different political calculations than people that run in congressional districts. And you have a caucus that spans the ideology of women like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who are seen as these sort of moderate, centrist women. They’re pro-choice; they support Medicaid; they have their own political brands in their states that are just as strong, if not stronger, than Donald Trump’s. So they don’t need to be afraid of him.
John McCain I would put into that camp as well. Arizona knows John McCain. He’s not too concerned about what the president thinks. So you have this mix of very powerful personalities with their own political brands and ideas, and trying to get 50 of them to agree to one idea—because in this case, that’s all they needed to get Vice President Mike Pence to be the tiebreaker.
That was always the kind of margin they were looking at, and they just couldn’t get there. They just couldn’t get there. It’s not dissimilar to the problem that they had in the House, was this question of how much government do you want to have? And there was a queasiness about radically changing and rewriting the way the Medicaid program works. There was the sense that it was moving too fast, that they were trying to affect one-sixth of the United States economy in a plan that wasn’t very well thought out just to deliver on a political promise. That was John McCain’s concern, that none of these ideas had gone through committees; there was no consensus for them; there was no long-term economic studies of what their bill would do, how it would affect people.
His argument was really about the process of the way they were doing this and that it was foolish to try and do all this just to make good on a campaign promise.
Did Trump know this? Do you know if he was aware of these dimensions in what was happening in the Senate?
I do, and I think that he also did try. I mean, he had senators over to the White House. There were dinners; there were meetings. But again, when I say that senators are much more focused on their own states, their own careers and their own ideas, I mean these are very forceful personalities, most of which have very clear views on these issues, who know their states better than any president does, and aren’t going to be swayed by a purely political argument. It just wasn’t going to work.
… Take me into the chamber the night of the vote when McCain does his McCain thing. What does it feel like? What was it like? Were you there when that was happening?
Yeah, I was there.
Tell us about what it was like, how it felt, where people stood. Could you feel that there was something special about to happen? …
McCain had been increasingly vocal about his criticisms in the days leading up to the vote, so he was on everybody’s watch list of where is he going to go. The day of the vote—I mean, every time we saw him it was like: “Do you know how you’re going to vote? Do you know how you’re going to vote?” And he was grouchier and grouchier as the day went on, as he sometimes gets, and he just said, “Stay tuned.” He kind of was even saying, like, “Watch the vote; it will be a show.”
So the vote comes, and the press in the Senate sits above—if you ever watch C-SPAN, when you see the persons presiding over the chamber, we’re above them. You’ll never see it on TV, but you have a pretty good catbird seat to the Senate, and if it’s quiet, you can often hear things that they’re saying or the conversations that they’re having. The votes tend to happen pretty slowly. People trickle in; they vote; oftentimes they just go up and talk to the clerks. So the vote is ticking away; the vote is ticking away, and McCain’s on the floor, but he’s not voting. So everyone is kind of just watching him, right?
At this point, there’s probably 30, 40 reporters in the gallery. This is at night. Normally there’s no reporters in the gallery, right? We don’t normally sit in the chamber. At one point I remember he goes over to the Democratic side. and he talks to Schumer, and [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was in that huddle on the floor. You see them talking, and Dianne Feinstein hugs McCain. She gives him a hug, like just wraps her arms around him. We’re watching this, and we’re like, “OK, something is happening here.” And a couple more minutes pass. I believe he gets a call from the president, goes out into the cloakroom, comes back in.
He walks up to where the vote clerks are, and he lifts his hand very dramatically, and then he just points down no, voting no. And there is literal—you can hear audible gasps in the galleries, right? You just—“Aaah”—that this had happened, and you start to hear some applause on the Democratic side of the aisle, and Chuck Schumer kind of motions, and it’s like, “Stop it; don’t look like we’re celebrating; we shouldn’t be gloating.” This is like a serious, somber moment. …
In what people have now started to call the civil war inside the GOP, what is this moment? … Is it an early skirmish? Is it a serious battle?
It was a serious failure, and I think at the moment it was still pretty early into this presidency, and there was this sense of, is this entirely going to go off the rails? Is this going to be the way it is and that we’re just never going to be able to advance anything? In some ways, you could make an argument that they never would have, or it would not have been as easy to pass their $1.5 trillion tax cut if they hadn’t had that epic, epic failure on health care, because it did have the benefit of really crystallizing their minds, that when they fail, people don’t necessarily blame the president, right? I mean, Trump’s not particularly popular, and his approval ratings aren’t great, but they’ve also been kind of statically bad.
When the Republican Party base, which is what this was about, Republican voters, when they get mad, they get mad at Congress. And one of the interesting things to watch was Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell’s approval ratings after the health care failure just absolutely tank, and that among Republican voters—not among all people, but among their own party—the frustration and the anger and the disgust was at the establishment. I don’t think that they blamed Donald Trump. …
It also has an effect on Trump. He must have been plugged into all that. He’s got a very good tuning fork on the politics of the base. It seems to us like no more Mr. Nice Guy moment, this “If you were wondering who I was and whether I was going to play the game and be just a docile pen, even though I’ve been tweeting you about a lot of stuff, now you’re going to get the full force and fury of Donald Trump on Twitter.” …
The president’s frustration was not subtle, right, particularly toward Mitch McConnell. I think he just saw him as a failure. It was like his employee—failure to be a good manager of his employees, and maybe we should get rid of Mitch McConnell. It wasn’t helpful. I don’t know what effect it had. I don’t think it affected Mitch McConnell all that much. The one criticism that Republicans are pretty happy to say about the president is they all just wish he would tweet less, because all these things do are kind of create these secondary storylines that [don’t] really advance anything.
Then there was this question of, is he going to turn on party leaders? He is going to spend the next year just attacking Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and putting their majorities at risk? What is he going to do? It’s hard to explain how little Congress can anticipate or predict what the president is going to do. In a lot of ways, even the most senior people on Capitol Hill are experiencing him in this White House and his tweets and what they do in real time like the rest of us. …
When he’s in the midst of all this, it’s Bedminster, [N.J., the site of Trump National Golf Club]; it’s the summer. There’s a lot of all this noise is happening, and along comes Charlottesville. As they watch him, as we all watched him, what happened?
There’s this debate happening in the country about Confederate statues and what should happen to them. It’s been happening for a while, particularly in the South, and in Virginia, in Charlottesville, there’s a debate over taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee. And a group of alt-right, or white-supremacist, activists are planning a rally there. The rally turns violent. It’s one of these moments where I think the country often looks to their leaders to make sense of it, to hit the high note, to speak to our better angels. And Trump sort of misses that moment. If anything, he makes comments that are at least interpreted as being sympathetic to the cause of the people who are there associated with this racist argument.
I do think in some ways this was a turning point, maybe in his presidency and certainly with a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill, who had been frustrated by the president but were willing to put up with some of his lesser foibles, like the tweets, the things he would say, “fake news,” criticisms of the media they could brush off.
But the way he handled Charlottesville, for Republicans like Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, I think was a breaking point in that that is where he came out and at that time essentially said that he wasn’t sure Trump had the character or the temperament to be president of the United States and that he wasn’t sure that he understood the gravity of the office and didn’t meet the moment. Wow.
Bob Corker is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which in the Senate is still a rather prestigious position. [Vice President] Joe Biden was a former chairman of the same committee. They are senators who have their own independent relationships around the world, around the globe, Pentagon. He’s rather respected inside the party, both on foreign policy and domestic policy, and he had been a supporter of Donald Trump. He was not one of those Republicans that had abandoned him at the Access Hollywood tape point in the campaign. He had been an adviser in the transition. He had urged the hirings of people like Rex Tillerson at the secretary of state. He was one of these Republicans who very much was trying to make the Trump presidency work.
In the course of this first year, I think he just remained silent when a lot of things that the president did bothered him, and Charlottesville was just a point he couldn’t take anymore. You saw at that point moving forward, he just became more and more critical, publicly critical, of the president. And I think this is what is interesting about a lot of his critics on Capitol Hill—and I would put Jeff Flake of Arizona, the Republican senator who’s retiring in part of this—is that they don’t really disagree with Donald Trump on policy, right? Like the ideological differences on policy, they agree on mostly what they would like to do. It’s really just about character. It’s about who he is as a person, what his moral judgments are, what his character is.
They find him offensive, and they have openly questioned his judgment, his character and his fitness for the office, and whether the decisions he’s making now are hurting—could potentially have long-term damage to the U.S.’s standing in the world. I mean, wow. That is incredible criticism. But they’ve also been somewhat lonely, right? I think other Republicans may share their concerns but aren’t as willing to say them out loud. It does benefit that neither one of them are running for re-election, so I think their critics would also say it’s rather convenient that they’re willing to criticize when they don’t have anything on the line.
Of course the president, with this ability to—he’s his own publisher to millions of people. … He has that power. And one of the things he does, of course, is, and near that time, he flies down to Arizona and publicly excoriates Flake and John McCain.
Yeah, goes into their home turf and insults them in their own states. The reality, though, is that—and this is in this battle between Trump and the Republican Party; Jeff Flake is a great example of this—that he could go into his own state, insult him, and that Flake ultimately looked at the 2018 landscape, looked at the Republican voters in Arizona and decided this isn’t a party that I can win re-election in anymore. If you know who Jeff Flake is and have studied his congressional career at all, it is an amazing turnaround that 10 years ago, Jeff Flake, who was then a member of the House, was then seen as a hard-line, ideological conservative. I mean, he was Freedom Caucus before it was Freedom Caucus. He voted against the Bush administration on all of the expansions of government that they wanted to do. He was a leading advocate to get rid of earmarks or special spending projects in Congress. He has been one of the most consistently conservative voices and votes in Congress.
Ten years later, he can’t win a Republican primary. And I would say that on two issues, and they’re kind of related, but one is this questioning of Trump’s character, because Trump is just very popular in Arizona, and they like Donald Trump more than they like Jeff Flake, and on an issue that has really bedeviled the Republican Party, which is immigration. Jeff Flake, which used to be more of a mainstream view in the party—it was certainly the view of George W. Bush during his administration—that there was incentives to reforming the immigration system and even incentives to reforming a system that could include a path to citizenship, that could improve the economy, that could send a message to Hispanics and other immigrants that they’re welcome in this party. And Jeff Flake’s got that worldview.
Most of the Republican Party [doesn’t] right now, and that has been one of the ideological shifts that has elbowed him out of the tent, even if he ideologically is still one of the more conservative members of Congress.
… [Flake then announces he’s leaving the Senate.] Tell me about the substance of the speech, him on the floor. You’ve given us a very good description of who this man is. What is the meaning of what he says? What is the impact of what he says in the United States Senate and in the Congress?
His speech, there’s sort of this sadness to, right? I mean, he gets very emotional on the floor. Flake is one of these people who has really devoted their life to conservative causes; that politics not only is in his blood, but it’s in his family. Extended members of his family were founders of the state of Arizona. His family has been involved in civic life for generations. He ran for government in a very idealistic way, to make the world a better place in his eyes. He has a very conservative worldview that he has stayed committed to throughout his career. He has things he deeply believes in, and in some ways I think there’s just a sadness to him. There’s a heartbrokenness to him because he didn’t want to leave the Senate, right? He’s still young. He wanted to run for re-election. Politics can be an incredibly cruel business where I think you look at someone like Jeff Flake, who has devoted their life to the cause, and finds himself unwelcome in his own party.
It’s a lonely place to be, because the only other senator who’s even voicing anything like this concerns is Bob Corker, who’s also retiring. And his colleagues, who very much like him and respect him, nobody wants to be a secondary injury in this fight, right? So he’s also kind of lonely in that there isn’t a groundswell in the Senate, the club where normally senators stand up for each other, defend each other. There isn’t a rush to stick up for Jeff Flake or side with him. Everyone just kind of stays on the sidelines and wants to stay out of it. When you would talk to a senator, “What did you think about Jeff Flake?,” “Oh, I didn’t see what he said. I missed it. I was in a meeting.” Like, there wasn’t much ruminating on his decision, and they all just kind of moved on, right? Flake has continued to speak out when he disagrees with the president, but he’s a lonely voice.
… What’s the state of the Republican Party pre-tax bill, where they all seem to come together? … Where is the party right then?
You have what’s been a really unremarkable legislative year. You suffer this big loss in Alabama [in the Senate race with Roy Moore]. There’s been a huge failure to deliver on a major campaign promise. And in some ways, it is what it takes for Republicans to get a tax bill passed, because they really understood the moment they were in. I mean, they really understood that this was an existential moment for the Republican Party. They’re looking at a midterm election, [where] neither the polling math nor history precedents are in their favor. They know they’ve had a bad year. They know that the internal civil war in the party’s happening.
And across the board, when you talk to Republicans and say, “What does all this mean?,” they would say: “It means we have to pass a tax code. It means that if we don’t do this, our voters will never forgive us; our donors will abandon us; the president will turn on us in 2018, and our majorities will absolutely be at stake.”
It’s still amazing how quickly they were able to craft, move, pass and get to the president very significant, a major overhaul of the tax code. But I still say what made it happen was those political realities, was this recognition that this was a climate that was terrible for them and that there was so much demand on an individual level and as a party to have a win that any concerns that might have been had about what they were doing, it was enough to overcome all of it. It even won Bob Corker’s vote, who had initially said he would never vote for a tax bill that contributed one dime to the deficit. He ultimately in the end was a yes for the bill because I think even he wanted to be able to say he contributed to something the Republican Party did. …
The optics of that picture of everybody on the steps [of the White House] and Trump down there [celebrating], … what does that say to you, a witness to the craziest year I’ve ever seen in American politics? If that’s the culminating moment of 2017, what does that say?
I think it was the single best day for the Republican Party in 2017. It was certainly the best single day for members of Congress who are up for re-election next year. I don’t think you get a lot of good days when you serve in public office, and that’s by design. It’s not supposed to be easy; it’s not supposed to be fun. And I don’t know. It was the most hopeful, optimistic moment inside the Republican Party that they had—I had talked to people about this before the tax bill, the one-year mark of the Republican Party, and I talked to conservative activists and different people who saw the tax bill as kind of this test of can these two forces, can Congress and the White House and outside groups who haven’t really been able to figure each other out, if they can do it on the tax bill, if they can get this collective win, if they can see how good this feels, if they get what it means to be a governing majority, could that be a catalyst into next year? Have they figured it out? Have they figured out what the special sauce is?
… Flake is not the only Republican who worried, as you said, worried about Trump, in a way. But he does represent a diminishing group of what are now called establishment Republicans, Corker, a handful of others, who once were the dominant or the growing majority of the party, especially after Romney’s defeat, where the autopsy happens, and they say, “We’ve got to find a way to broaden our base.” So where is he at that moment? And where are they, that group, as they watch Trump campaign for the Presidency?
One of the most remarkable things about the story of Jeff Flake is how, you know, if you would have told me in 2006 that Jeff Flake in 2016 wasn’t going to be able to run for reelection that year because he wasn’t seen as conservative enough, it would have been impossible to dream of, just 10 years ago.
… When George W. Bush was President, he was the hardline right in the House. He was the one that was voting against the Republican establishment, alongside his friend Mike Pence, then a Republican of Indiana. These were two vocal hardline conservatives who were willing to push back against the establishment on, at that time, what was seen as the growth of government, more spending, bigger government, more entitlements.
So he had a lot of street cred for most of his career as a conservative. I think he would argue that he stayed the same, and the party changed, right. …
Flake—You’ve seen the speech. Why does he deliver it so—I mean it’s almost like he’s quaking, he’s stumbling. Is it because it’s an extremely hard thing to do, to go up against the President of the United States? It’s filled with emotion.
When he gave that speech, there was this sense of sort of heartbreak around him, right. I do think he’s picked this fight. He’s doing these things. But there still has to be an element of sadness to him and to the things that you have dedicated your entire life to, and the causes you have fought for, and the party that has been one of the driving forces of your life. And you’re just not welcome there anymore, you know. There is a sadness. There is a disappointment. He’s not a joyful warrior in this fight with Donald Trump. He’s sort of—There is a veil of sadness around him that this is—I think he recognizes that he’s walking a very lonely walk right now.