The Senate did take up a resolution urging Trump not to accede to Putin’s request for Russian officials to interview the financier Bill Browder and the former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the chamber should hold hearings on a broader package of sanctions against Russia.
Only McCain, who called Trump’s Helsinki meeting “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory,” has come close to matching Flake’s criticism. But even Arizona’s senior senator has not questioned the motive behind Trump’s acquiescence to Putin. McCain and Flake are linked not only by state, but also by their political circumstance: Neither will face the voters again, and so neither must contend with a Republican base that is resolutely behind the president. The only other GOP senator with the same freedom is Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman who, after a rapprochement this spring with the president, has lately renewed his criticism of Trump’s policies toward trade, NATO, and Russia.
As my colleague David Graham reported Thursday morning, most other Republicans in the Senate, after initially voicing dismay at Trump’s performance, quickly accepted his Wednesday clarification that he misspoke alongside Putin. Flake did not. He made no mention of the president’s clean-up attempt, and he implicitly called out those who used it as an excuse to move on. “This is not a moment for spin, deflection, justification, circling the wagons, forgetting, moving on to the next news cycle, or for more of Orwell’s doublespeak,” he said. “No, when the American government offers an onslaught on unreality, it puts the whole world at risk.”
Flake’s willingness to confront Trump rhetorically has heartened some Democrats but frustrated many others. They see a senator who takes comfort in speaking but refuses to act, too reluctant to use the source of power he’ll relinquish next year—his vote. Flake has threatened to hold up legislation and nominations in the past. But he has folded easily, first when he supported the Republican tax bill in December in exchange for an immigration commitment that never materialized, and more recently when he held up judicial nominations only to relent in exchange for a nonbinding vote on trade.
“We need more from Republicans now,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said shortly before Flake spoke on the floor. “It is time for the Senate to rein in the president’s dangerous behavior.” He warned that without concrete action, “all of their fine-sounding words of concern become meaningless.”
Democrats and GOP defectors outside the Senate have urged Flake to withhold his vote on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, or even switch parties to deprive Republicans of their narrow Senate majority for the remainder of the year. Flake laughed off the suggestion that he should defect to the Democrats, reminding a Politico reporter who asked him about it that he literally wrote a book on how conservative he is last year.
On Thursday afternoon, Flake readily acknowledged that his resolution would do nothing to rein in Trump. “Yes, it’s symbolic,” he said. “And symbolism is important.”
His argument all along has been that a president’s words matter, that tone matters. And as Flake makes his sharp-tongued but largely rhetorical stands against Trump, he’s betting, with dubious chance at success, that his own words can matter, too.