Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) generated a few headlines yesterday, delivering another speech criticizing Donald Trump from the Senate floor. The Associated Press reported:
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is condemning President Donald Trump’s attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, calling them a “travesty.”
Flake, a vocal Trump critic, said Wednesday from the Senate floor that Trump has been “relentlessly slandering” Sessions. He warned that Trump seems headed for “some future assault” on the justice system, perhaps by firing Sessions or special counsel Robert Mueller. He urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a vote on legislation to protect Mueller’s investigation.
The retiring Republican senator added that Congress has “the responsibility to curb such reckless behavior” from Trump and appealed to lawmakers to speak out.
Of course, speaking out and lawmakers taking steps to curb reckless presidential behavior are not the same thing.
Flake has become quite adept at delivering remarks like these, and for Trump detractors, the Arizonan’s speeches tend to be powerful and eloquent. I was especially impressed with the message he delivered at Harvard Law School in May, when Flake said, “Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division – and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works.”
But as compelling as Flake’s criticisms are, there’s still something important missing: follow through.
Circling back to previous coverage from January, after Flake delivered blistering remarks condemning his party’s president, some core truths remain unchanged. The senator, for example, continues to vote with Trump’s agenda the vast majority of the time, despite, to use his words, the “moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily.”
But this isn’t just a matter of voting records. In practical terms, Trump knows (and cares) so little about public policy that lawmakers like Flake have enormous power – especially in a narrowly divided 51-49 Senate. The question is what the Arizonan and his colleagues intend to do with that power.
Flake’s online bio, for example, notes that he serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a subcommittee chairman. Has he used this perch to pressure the White House? Not in any meaningful way.
Flake also serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. If he wants a vote on legislation to protect Robert Mueller’s investigation, for example, the GOP lawmaker could make his vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation conditional on a bill to protect the special counsel’s probe.
Last summer, the Arizona lawmaker wrote a piece for Politico in which he compared Trump to a biblical flood – and not in a good way. But when it came time to put forward meaningful steps the GOP should take in the Trump era, Flake came up with three recommendations: (1) be willing to criticize Trump when the president does damage to “the Republican Party’s ability to grow and speak to a larger audience”; (2) honor the GOP’s long-standing free-trade commitments; and (3) “stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the Senate filibuster.”
To put it charitably, this was an underwhelming response to what he considered a political crisis. As we talked about at the time, Flake seemed to recognize the poison eating away at his party, but his proposed antidote was, at best, weak.
And therein lies the problem. I like Flake’s speeches, op-eds, and books. I also recognize that it takes some political courage to speak out the way he has. But I keep waiting for the Arizona senator to actually do something – to follow up his welcome words with deeds – instead of preparing the next speech, op-ed, and book.
NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin noted a few months ago that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) started blocking the White House’s Justice Department nominees until the administration met his demands on matters related to his state. Flake, meanwhile, apparently sees the president as a danger to the republic, but he’s made no comparable moves.
Isaac Chotiner recently had a good piece in Slate along these lines, noting that Flake “seems entirely unwilling to take actions commensurate with either the times – which he correctly recognizes as frighteningly dangerous – or his own words. He seems to believe that anything too radical would be a violation of his conservative principles, when in fact he should be willing to temporarily put aside his commitment to those principles for his commitment to – by his own account – larger ones.”
In a 51-49 Senate, Flake can wield great influence. It’s not too late for him to take better advantage of the opportunity to keep a president that frightens him in check.