'It’s Our Responsibility to Put More Guardrails Around the President'

Senator Jeff Flake explains his speech on the Senate floor in defense of the press—and talks about what he’s planning next.

Senate TV / Reuters

Jeff Flake seems intent on finishing his Senate career without any friends left in Washington.

Ever since announcing his impending retirement last year with a blistering speech that called out President Trump’s “reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior,” the generally genial Arizona Republican has repeatedly made himself a target of condemnation on both sides of the aisle. His decision to endorse Democrat Doug Jones in the Alabama Special Election enraged conservatives who viewed it as a brazen partisan betrayal. His vote for the GOP tax bill, meanwhile, convinced Democrats that he was all talk and no action.

Flake took fire from both sides this week when he took to the Senate floor to denounce Trump’s vilification of the free press and his “sustained attack on the truth.” The speech—delivered hours before the president unveiled his “Fake News Awards”—drew heat from Republicans for its invocation of Joseph Stalin, and derision from Democrats, who accused him of performative moral preening without any substance behind it.

I met with Flake in his Capitol Hill office the day after his speech, and talked to him about what he hoped it would accomplish. He told me he understood why some Republicans would bristle at his Stalin reference, and said he wasn’t comparing the two men’s sins. “Do I think Trump is a dictator? No, he isn’t,” Flake said. But “if the president were to want to go that direction,” he added, it would be crucial that America’s key institutions—like Congress and the press—remain strong. He also told me that some of his most meaningful opposition to Trump’s agenda has taken place behind the scenes.

“I do think that it’s our responsibility to put more guardrails around the president,” he said. “That’s part of what drove this speech.”

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

McKay Coppins: What made you want to give this speech?

Jeff Flake: I said right after I gave my retirement speech that I would go to the floor and do a number of speeches. And not necessarily on, like, free trade or immigration policy, but more on—for lack of a better term—character. And this was obviously the first. I mean, the truth has been under assault for quite a while. It just bothered me that we are conditioning ourselves to it. It’s less of an outrage every time there’s a falsehood coming out of the White House.

Coppins: The speech was advertised as being about press freedom, but it was actually much broader than that.

Flake: Well, it’s not just an attack on journalism—it’s on empirical, evidence-based truth.

Coppins: As a Mormon, my ears perked up at the end when you quoted that somewhat obscure Mormon hymn. I feel like we don’t sing that one much in church. Does it have some kind of special meaning to you?

Flake: Well, my wife is a musician, and when I was writing this, I said to her, “What’s a hymn that talks about truth?” She immediately responded, “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” So I looked at the words, and you know, I could’ve used any verse. The prior verses talk about despotism and tyranny.

Coppins: Every time you give one of these speeches, there’s a chorus of liberal critics who say, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” How do you respond to that?

Flake: One, don’t forget that I’m a conservative. There are two big things that they point to that I voted for that they would’ve wanted me to vote against: Health care and tax reform. I voted 30-some times to repeal and replace Obamacare—why should I switch just because the president shares our view? And then on tax cuts, I mean, look at my book. I’ve been all about that for a long time.

I oppose the president’s conduct and behavior certainly. But on policy, there’s a lot I disagree with too. I’ve given dozens of speeches on NAFTA that nobody remembers. On the Muslim ban, we’re doing an Iran resolution to express solidarity with the Iranian people right now. Which is good—I think that’s what we should do. But my position is, if we’re going to do that, then let’s go further and actually tell the Iranian people that we don’t mistrust them, that they’re not part of the regime, and let’s let them travel again. I’ve said I won’t vote for that resolution unless it contains that item. So they’ve held it. With a couple of the president’s nominees—Sam Clovis, who’s a big birther—quietly, we’ve said we won’t support him coming to the floor, so he doesn’t get to the floor. Or a couple of the judicial nominees that are less than qualified—quietly, I’ve said, “Don’t bring them forward.”

Coppins: So, you’re saying some of your pushback against Trump happens behind the scenes?

Flake: Yeah, you don’t see all of it—particularly when the party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House. Basically, they’ll whip votes for a certain nominee, and you’ll let your views be known so it doesn’t get to the floor.

There was a New York Times piece the other day that I may write a response to. It was a while ago, but still it reflects a lot of the criticism. It argued that if I don’t agree with the president—his policies, or his behavior—then it’s my obligation to hobble him. That was the word used in that particular op-ed. And to me, it just harkens back to when Mitch McConnell said something—and it wasn’t as clean as they made it out to be—but something like, “My job is to make sure that President Obama doesn’t get a second term.” The left went nuts at that.

Coppins: Do you think it was productive to invoke Joseph Stalin in your criticism of Trump?

Flake: The president’s borrowing of the phrase “enemy of the people”—I think that that’s repulsive. We should be ashamed, those of us who are from this party, that the leader of our party would borrow language from a dictator. Do I think Trump is a dictator? No, he isn’t. There’s a difference in killing 20 million people or so. And thankfully, the institutions that we have—if the president were to want to go that direction, then they’ve held so far. But the other of half of the speech was about [Trump] inspiring dictators and authoritarians. You look at Ergodan, Assad, Duterte, Maduro. They’re borrowing his language now, and that’s making a real difference right now.

You know, I have some sympathy with my colleagues who say, “You don’t need to bring up the ‘enemy of the people’ thing.” And it stings me that people think that I’m comparing them. But he’s the one that’s using that language. I mean, he ought to know better.

Coppins: Do you think the president knew that he was using the same language Stalin used?

Flake: I don’t know. If not, he ought to be made to know, and he ought to apologize. You shouldn’t let that stand. I do sympathize more with people who say, “Give him a pass on that until he’s a real dictator. Until he revokes the license of companies that own media outlets that he doesn’t like. He’s just threatened to do so, he’s not going to carry through.” But I think that we ought to stand up and say, “No, that’s wrong.” Even an idle threat should be treated seriously.

Coppins: Well that leads to my next question: In your speech, you said, “Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.” What would that look like to you? Are there any concrete policy actions that you’d like your colleagues to take?

Flake: Well you could, I mean, bring a resolution to the floor—say, “That’s beyond the pale, that’s too much.”

Coppins: Will you bring that resolution?

Flake: We’ll see what comes up. And if it’s egregious enough, yes.

I do think that it’s our responsibility to put more guardrails around the president. That’s part of what drove this speech—this reluctance on our part here to stand up for the institution of the Congress. That reluctance manifests itself in a lot of ways.

Coppins: You talked about the communist roots of anti-press hostility. But would you also acknowledge that there’s been an anti-press current running through the American right for decades, going all the way back to Barry Goldwater?

Flake: Sure, yeah. I’ll concede that. I’m the first to admit, though, that if you look at the mainstream media, there is an anti-conservative bias. Let’s face it. There is. But that’s—you just live with it. You understand it and do your best with it.

Coppins: How do you think we in the news media have done in his first year of the Trump presidency?

Flake: I do think that there is a kind of Trump-derangement syndrome. You look at some of the questions that come out there about the president’s bill of health or whatever else. Some of it’s fun, I’m sure. But it does feed the cynicism about the press, it really does.

Some people say, “You gave a speech about Trump doing some crazy things, but why don’t you go and call out the media every time they do it?” I try to say, that’s not my job.

Coppins: Last thing: There was a clip from NRA TV that was going around Twitter after your speech. They were very mad at you. Did you see it?

Flake: NRA TV? Gee, that’s a little concerning.

Coppins: Yeah, good luck with that, I guess.

Flake: Thanks. Now I’m worried.