Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has made no secret of his concerns about Donald Trump's presidency, but the retiring Republican senator was strikingly candid in a speech at Harvard Law School yesterday.
"Not to be unpleasant, but I do bring news from our nation's capital. First, the good news: Your national leadership is not good. At all. 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."And our Article I branch of government, the Congress -- that's me -- is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily.... This is it, if you have been wondering what the bottom looks like. This is what it looks like when you stress-test all of the institutions that undergird our constitutional democracy, at the same time."
The Arizonan went on to twice describe our system of government as "a democracy that is in trouble." Flake added that Americans have arrived at a time "of great peril."
It was a speech that was as compelling as it was eloquent, and for those who mourn the demise of the Republican Party's principles and traditions, it was heartening to see Flake have the courage to deliver the remarks.
And yet, once again, the praise for the senator must come with some caveats.
Circling back to our coverage from January -- the last time Flake took a bold stand against Trump with blistering remarks condemning his party's president -- regular readers probably know that the retiring senator 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."
Yes, Flake voted against CIA Director Gina Haspel's nomination -- a decision I saw as the right thing to do -- but he announced his opposition after she already had more than enough votes to win confirmation, and his vote turned out to be of no consequence.
But this isn't just a matter of voting records. In practical terms, Trump knows (and cares) so little about public policy that his legislative preferences are, at best, superficial. To the extent that any meaningful policy work is underway, it’s happening on Capitol Hill, not in the Oval Office.
And that, in turn, gives lawmakers like Flake enormous power -- especially in a narrowly divided especially in a 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, where he could use his position to scrutinize some of the worst of Trump’s judicial nominees, rejecting those who fall short. Except, that hasn’t happened, either.
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 discussed 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 yesterday, for example, that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) started blocking the White House's Justice Department nominees until the administration made 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.