'We Pretended That the Emperor Wasn’t Naked'

Republican Senator Jeff Flake takes on President Trump—but stops well short of calling for his removal.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, has published an excerpt of his forthcoming book, The Conscience of a Conservative, in Politico. The title is an echo of Barry Goldwater’s famous tome. The excerpt argues that congressional Republicans are in denial about President Trump.

He urges them to do something.

“There simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos,” Flake wrote. “As the first branch of government (Article I), the Congress was designed expressly to assert itself at just such moments. It is what we talk about when we talk about ‘checks and balances.’ Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, ‘Someone should do something!’ without seeming to realize that that someone is us. And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.”

Flake, who offered similar thoughts to my colleague McKay Coppins in the new issue of The Atlantic, is hardly the first to acknowledge that an unfit captain is steering the ship of state, and that all the people and property on board are needlessly endangered.

Peter Wehner, who served Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, told a TV audience last week, “The problem at its core is Donald Trump and it is at its core that he is a person who thrives on chaos and manages with chaos, but it’s really deeper than that … it is a psychological and emotional affliction; he has a disoriented and disordered mind, and there is no controlling or containing that … This chaos is unlike anything that we’ve ever seen, and they haven’t faced a genuine crisis yet. Can you imagine if you had a 9-11 type situation, or a financial meltdown, or a military collision happen with this crew and with this commander-in-chief?”

The conservative columnist Ross Douthat published a sober plea to use the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. He just cannot be trusted with nukes, he argued.

But Flake is different.

“As a Republican member of Congress, he is declaring Trump a domestic and international menace,” a New York Times review of his forthcoming book declares. “Other conservatives in the news media and strategist class have been saying just this for well over a year, of course, but they don’t depend on a radicalized base to keep their jobs. Flake is the first elected official to cross this particular rhetorical Rubicon, and he seems to be imploring his colleagues to follow. He offers a despairing, unsparing indictment of everyone in Congress who went along with Trump’s election.”

Flake put it this way in the book: “We pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked.”

For all that, he doesn’t call for impeaching Trump.“So, where should Republicans go from here?” he asks in his excerpt, building to a mild conclusion. “First, we shouldn’t hesitate to speak out if the president ‘plays to the base’ in ways that damage the Republican Party’s ability to grow and speak to a larger audience. Second, Republicans need to take the long view when it comes to issues like free trade: Populist and protectionist policies might play well in the short term, but they handicap the country in the long term. Third, Republicans need to stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the Senate filibuster, that have served us well for more than two centuries.”

That’s rather restrained given how much damage a president can do.

In this, Flake’s thinking tracks a recent column by George Will, the Never Trump conservative, who attempted a measure of optimism. Trump is “a feeble president whose manner can cure the nation’s excessive fixation with the presidency,” Will argued, briefly tracing the growth of executive power. “Fortunately, today’s president is so innocent of information that Congress cannot continue deferring to executive policymaking,” he added. “And because this president has neither a history of party identification nor an understanding of reciprocal loyalty, congressional Republicans are reacquiring a constitutional—a Madisonian—ethic. It mandates a prickly defense of institutional interests, placing those interests above devotion to parties that allow themselves to be defined episodically by their presidents.”

Will is urging the nation to take the punishment that is coming as a penance for civic sins. “For now, worse is better,” he wrote. “Diminution drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it. There will be 42 more months of this president’s increasingly hilarious-beyond-satire apotheosis of himself, leavened by his incessant whining about his tribulations (‘What dunce saddled me with this silly attorney general who takes my policy expostulations seriously?’). This protracted learning experience, which the public chose to have and which should not be truncated, might whet the public’s appetite for an adult president confident enough to wince at, and disdain, the adoration of his most comically groveling hirelings.”

Trump lost the popular vote by millions; his inexperience, fragile psyche, and erratic behavior put countless millions beyond our borders in needless danger. If and when a high crime or misdemeanor can be proved, Congress owes it to its constituents and the wider world to oust Trump in favor of a stable successor.

Trump is a legitimate president, despite garnering so many fewer votes than his opponent, because the Electoral College is a legitimate part of the American constitutional system. So is impeachment. In what circumstances would Flake vote to convict?