Politics

Trump critic Sen. Jeff Flake won't run again

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters at the Capitol in April. On Tuesday, he announced he would not seek re-election.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters at the Capitol in April. On Tuesday, he announced he would not seek re-election.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., announced in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor that he will not seek re-election in 2018, decrying the coarse tone of politics and "flagrant disregard for truth or decency" ushered in by the election of President Trump.

"We must never regard as 'normal' the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals," Flake said. "We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency; the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.

"None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal," Flake continued.

"This spell will eventually break. That is my belief," Flake added. "We will return to ourselves once more. And I say, the sooner the better. Because we have a healthy government, we must also have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith."

Flake has been a frequent critic of Trump since the 2016 campaign and, as a target of right-wing frustration himself, has been seen as especially vulnerable to a GOP primary challenge in 2018. He was a top target of former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon for defeat in the GOP primary, and early polls showed Flake trailing former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward. His decision to retire rather than to fight on is a major development in the GOP's civil war, and is at least a short-term victory for Bannon and his allies that have vowed to purge the Republican Party of those lawmakers who don't fully support President Trump.

From the outset, Flake had refused to bend to those forces, refusing to back the president in last year's election. The senator even penned a book earlier this year that was a damning rebuke of Trump's populist and nationalist agenda, accusing the GOP of making a "Faustian bargain" when the party overlooked Trump's abandonment of longtime conservative principles like free trade and didn't denounce many of Trump's controversial statements and stances.

But Flake's speech on the Senate floor was an unprecedented indictment of a sitting president by a member of his own party. Flake said that he was speaking because "there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles" but that his comments nonetheless came "with no small measure of regret."

"Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our — all of our — complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end," Flake implored his fellow Republicans.

"In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order — that phrase being 'the new normal.' But we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue — with the tone set at the top," Flake continued, with a clear shot at Trump.

Flake first informed the Arizona Republic of his decision, telling the newspaper "there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party."

And he acknowledged that his decision was motivated, in part, because he was worried about the concessions he would have to make if he wanted to run a winning campaign.

"Here's the bottom line: The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I'm not willing to take, and that I can't in good conscience take," Flake told The Republic. "It would require me to believe in positions I don't hold on such issues as trade and immigration and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone."

Flake's announcement came on the same day that Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., another retiring lawmaker, also unloaded on Trump amid their ongoing Twitter feud. Corker said that "the constant nontruth-telling, just the name-calling, I think the debasement of our nation" is what the president will be remembered by.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended Trump's tweets against Corker, saying that the president is a fighter and when he is hit, he's going to hit back. As for Flake — whom Trump has derided as "toxic" and "weak" on border security — Sanders said it was "probably a good thing" he wasn't seeking re-election given his lack of support in Arizona.

Flake's seat is a target for Democrats hoping to pick up a seat in a year that looks very good for Republicans in the Senate, and Republicans believed that if he lost the primary, the seat would be much harder to hold. Now, his decision to retire throws the prospects for his seat even more up in the air.

Senate Democrats heralded Flake's decision as "another example of the divisiveness roiling Republican primaries."

"These dynamics will continue to hinder Republican efforts in Arizona and whatever candidate succeeds in claiming their nomination will fall short of [Rep.] Kyrsten Sinema and her proven record of results for Arizona's working families," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement.

Republicans, meanwhile, expressed optimism that the seat would stay in GOP hands. While many have concerns about Ward's ability to win a general election, Flake's exit now could actually help a stronger Republican candidate than Ward win the primary. According to GOP sources, possible candidates could include Reps. Martha McSally, David Schweikert and Andy Biggs, as well as state Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

"Jeff Flake is as decent and thoughtful of a man that's ever been in the U.S. Senate, and no one can question his willingness to put country over party," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a statement. "His enduring legacy will be his success of eliminating earmarks and fighting corruption to protect taxpayers, and standing for the conservative principles of individual liberty and economic freedom."

Other GOP leaders also were saddened that Flake decided to head for the exits. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement that "Jeff's retirement is a loss to the Senate and the greater cause of conservatism." And speaking just after Flake on the Senate floor, Arizona's senior Sen. John McCain said, "I have seen Jeff Flake stand up for what he believes in knowing full well that there would be a political price to pay."

Those opposing Flake took his decision as a clear victory. A Bannon ally told CNN's Kaitlan Collins that Trump's former campaign CEO had added "another scalp to his collection as another establishment domino falls."

Bannon's Breitbart News, where he returned as chairman after leaving the White House in August, was clearly celebrating too.

And Ward, who is being backed by Bannon, said in statement that "Arizona voters are the big winner in Jeff Flake's decision to not seek re-election. They deserve a strong conservative in the U.S. Senate who supports President Trump and the 'America First' agenda."

Transcript of Flake's announcement

A frequent critic of President Trump's, Flake denounced the current political discourse in an address on the Senate floor. What follows is a full transcript of his remarks.

I rise to address a matter that has been very much on my mind. At a moment when it seems that our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than by our own values and principles, let me begin by noting the somewhat obvious point that these offices that we hold are not ours indefinitely. We are not here simply to mark time. Sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office. And there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles. Now is such a time.

It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion. Regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership. Regret for the compromise of our moral authority. And by "our" I mean all of "our." Complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

In this century a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being "the new normal." But we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set at the top. We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country. The personal attacks. The threats against principles, freedoms and institution. The flagrant disregard for truth and decency. The reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons — reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve. None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal. We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that that is just the way things are now. If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that it is just politics as usual, then heaven help us.

Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal.

Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as "telling it like it is," when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects the corruption of the spirit and weakness. It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, "Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you speak up?" What are we going to say? Mr. President, I rise today to say, "Enough."

We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal. With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that.

Here today, I stand to say that we would be better served, we would better serve the country by better fulfilling our obligations under the Constitution by adhering to our Article 1 "old normal." Mr. Madison's doctrine of separation of powers. This genius innovation which affirms Madison's status as a true visionary and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51 held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract with each other if necessary. "Ambition counteracts ambition," he wrote. But what happens if ambition fails to counteract ambition? What happens if stability fails to assert itself in the face of chaos and instability? If decency fails to call out indecency? Were the shoe on the other foot, would we Republicans meekly accept such behavior on display from dominant Democrats? Of course we wouldn't. And we would be wrong if we did.

When we remain silent and fail to act when we know that silence and inaction is the wrong thing to do — because of political considerations, because we might make enemies, because we might alienate the base, because we might provoke a primary challenge, because ad infinitum, ad nauseam — when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of our institutions and our liberty, we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.

Now I'm aware that more politically savvy people than I will caution against such talk. I'm aware that there is a segment of my party that believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect. If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States. If I have been critical it is because I believe it is my obligation to do so.

And as a matter and duty of conscience, the notion that one should stay silent and that as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters — the notion that we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric, and I believe, profoundly misguided.

A president, a Republican president named Roosevelt, had this to say about the president and a citizen's relationship to the office: "The president is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct. His efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able and disinterested service to the nation as a whole." He continued: "Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that there should be a full liberty to tell the truth about his acts. And this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile."

President Roosevelt continued: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by a president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves, and as such loyalty to conscience and principle should supersede loyalty to any man or party. We can all be forgiven for failing in that measure from time to time. I certainly put myself at the top of the list of those who fall short in this regard.

I am holier than none but too often we rush not to salvage principle but to forgive and excuse our failures so that we might accommodate them and go right on failing until the accommodation itself becomes our principle. In that way, and over time, we can justify almost any behavior and sacrifice any principle. I'm afraid that this is where we now find ourselves. When a leader correctly identifies real hurt and insecurity in our country, and instead of addressing it, goes to look for someone to blame, there is perhaps nothing more devastating to a pluralistic society. Leadership knows that most often a good place to start in assigning blame is to look somewhat closer to home. Leadership knows where the buck stops. Humility helps. Character counts. Leadership does not knowingly encourage or feed ugly or debased appetites in us. Leadership lives by the American creed: "E Pluribus Unum." "From many one." American leadership looks to the world and just as Lincoln did sees the family of man. Humanity is not a zero sum game. When we have been at our most prosperous, we have been at our most principled. And when we do well, the rest of the world does well. These articles of civic faith have been critical to the American identity for as long as we have been alive. They are our birthright and our obligation. We must guard them jealously and pass them on for as long as the calendar has days. To betray them or to be unserious in their defense is a betrayal of the fundamental obligations of American leadership and to behave as if they don't matter is simply not who we are.

Now, the efficacy of American leadership around the globe has come into question. When the United States emerged from World War II, we contributed about half of the world's economic activity. It would have been easy to secure our dominance, keeping those countries who had been defeated or greatly weakened during the war, in their place. We didn't do that. It would have been easy to focus inward. We resisted those impulses. Instead, we financed reconstruction of shattered countries and created international organizations and institutions that have helped provide security and foster prosperity around the world for more than 70 years.

Now it seems that we — the architects of this visionary, rules-based world order that has brought so much freedom and prosperity — are the ones most eager to abandon it. The implications of this abandonment are profound, and the beneficiaries of this rather radical departure in the American approach to the world are the ideological enemies of our values. Despotism loves a vacuum. And our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership. Why are they doing this? None of this is normal. And what do we, as United States senators, have to say about it? The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics. Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to. And so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit or silent.

I've decided that I would be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles. To that end, I am announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.

It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party, the party that has so long defined itself by its belief in those things. It is also clear to me, for the moment, that we have given in or given up on the core principles in favor of a more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment. To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess that we've created are justified. But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy. There is an undeniable potency to a populist appeal. [But] mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems and giving in to the impulse to scapegoat and belittle threatens to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking people. In the case of the Republican Party, those things also threaten to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking minority party.

We were not made great as a country by indulging in or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorifying in the things that divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake. And we did not become the beacon of freedom in the darkest corners of the world by flouting our institutions and failing to understand just how hard won and vulnerable they are. This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more. And I say, the sooner the better. Because we have a healthy government, we must also have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith.

We must argue our positions fervently and never be afraid to compromise. We must assume the best of our fellow man and always look for the good. Until that day comes, we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it. Because it does. I plan to spend the remaining 14 months of my Senate term doing just that. Mr. President, the graveyard is full of indispensable men and women. None of us here is indispensable. Nor were even the great figures of history who toiled at these very desks, in this very chamber to shape the country that we have inherited. What is indispensable are the values that they consecrated in Philadelphia and in this place — values which have endured, and will endure, for so long as men and women wish to remain free.

What is indispensable is what we do here in defense of those values. A political career does not mean much if we are complicit in undermining these values. I thank my colleagues for indulging me here today.

I will close by borrowing the words of President Lincoln, who knew more about healthy enmity and preserving our founding values than any other American who has ever lived. His words from his first inaugural were a prayer in his time and are now no less in ours: "We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of our affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Thank you Mr. President. I yield the floor.

Washington Desk intern contributed to this report.

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