They were the 1,217 words that sent shock waves through official Washington — an audacious attack on President Trump by a leading senator from his own Republican Party. It was clear from the headline that Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (who, in a remarkable coincidence, is up for reelection in 2018 in an increasingly competitive Sun Belt state) intended to fire a major shot across the bow of the 45th presidency.
“My Party Is in Denial About President Trump,” screams the piece, published Monday night in Politico magazine, adding: “We created him, and now we’re rationalizing him. When will it stop?” Here’s an excerpt from the piece that invokes the legacy of another conservative Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater, who led the delegation to persuade then-President Richard M. Nixon to resign at the depths of the Watergate scandal in 1974:
Meanwhile, the strange specter of an American president’s seeming affection for strongmen and authoritarians created such a cognitive dissonance among my generation of conservatives — who had come of age under existential threat from the Soviet Union — that it was almost impossible to believe. Even as our own government was documenting a concerted attack against our democratic processes by an enemy foreign power, our own White House was rejecting the authority of its own intelligence agencies, disclaiming their findings as a Democratic ruse and a hoax. Conduct that would have had conservatives up in arms had it been exhibited by our political opponents now had us dumbstruck.
It’s not surprising that some folks who’ve been resisting Trump from Day One celebrated the publication of the Flake op-ed as a sign that the Republican wall of support is finally crumbling, maybe even clearing the way for a serious push for impeachment and removal. And to be sure, there’s a lot to like within those 1,217 words from the senator. His reference to the “devouring ambition of despotic men” is a stunning acknowledgment that Trump isn’t just a goofball incompetent — Monday’s reality-show firing of the Season 2 character “the Mooch” notwithstanding — but a bona fide threat to American democracy. More important, a close reading of Flake’s analysis suggests a surprising awareness that the short-fingered vulgarian at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. isn’t so much an out-of-left-field aberration but the culmination of a long period of moral and intellectual rot among conservative Republicans.
But let’s not get carried away here.
Flake’s broadside (an excerpt from a book, which I’m sure will do very well with this kind of publicity) contains some powerful words, but “powerful words” are empty when they are not backed up by action. And the reality is that — barring actual signs of thwarting Trump’s dangerous agenda, or actively working to remove him from office — the senator’s op-ed isn’t groundbreaking, but is the latest in a trend of leading Republicans who criticize Trump but then do nothing of any consequence or risk to back it up.
Remember House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said — after the Access Hollywood tape where Trump acknowledged groping women — “I am not going to defend Donald Trump — not now, not in the future” before spending the next nine months doing exactly that? Or South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who gets headlines for criticizing Trump, like when he called a crude tweet about TV’s Mika Brzezinski “beneath the office,” yet votes with Trump 93.5 percent of the time? But Graham has nothing over Jeff Flake when it comes to Trump hypocrisy. So far.
Flake has been talking the anti-Trump game for some time, contending that he hadn’t voted for his party’s nominee in November. But since Inauguration Day, there have been few more reliable advocates for the Trump agenda than Flake. The news site FiveThirtyEight has been tracking members of Congress since January and projected that — based on Trump’s lukewarm support in Arizona — Flake would vote with the president about 60 percent of the time. The actual number has been a whopping 95.5 percent.
That means that Flake has been on board for the whole kit and kaboodle, including the wildly inappropriate cabinet picks like Betsy DeVos as education secretary. But the most egregious example has been with Obamacare. In his book, Flake writes: “Legislation executed without hearings and written by only one side is always a bad idea, regardless of who does it.” In real life, the Arizona senator has done exactly that — voting to proceed with Obamacare repeal-and-replace bills that no one had even seen, and, unlike his delegation mate Sen. John McCain, voting for the so-called skinny repeal that would have raised premiums while reducing coverage by an estimated 15 million.
Why did senators like Flake agree to such an undemocratic process, and vote for such harmful legislation? Because they wanted a “win” to parade before voters, and so did Trump, who vowed to sign anything that crossed his desk, with zero regard to whether it actually helped patients. Simply put, the Obamacare-repeal debate was a monument to the kind of “devouring ambition of despotic men” that Flake decries. So for Flake to advance that process — when McCain and two other Republican colleagues, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, found the gumption to resist it — is the height of hypocrisy.
There’s always — as McCain proved last week — a shot at redemption. In the coming days and weeks, if Flake crosses the aisle and works on legislation that would shore up Obamacare’s exchanges but not undermine our health-care system, or if he decides that Trump’s unfitness for the presidency warrants his actual removal from office, his words will actually have some meaning attached to them. Until then, the next time that the senator is tempted to ask, “When will it stop?” he should put down his laptop and look in the mirror.