Jeff Flake, the Arizona senator who has positioned himself as the foremost Republican objector to President Trump’s brand of hard-edged nationalism, is planning a barnburner of a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, his office told multiple news outlets.
In it, Flake will take aim at Trump’s sustained attacks on the news media and compare the president to one of history’s worst dictators.
“Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own President uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies,” Flake plans to say, according to the Washington Post. “It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase ‘enemy of the people,’ that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of ‘annihilating such individuals’ who disagreed with the supreme leader.”
(Trump has called the mainstream media the “enemy of the people” multiple times since his election, though he hasn’t used the line in almost a year.)
Flake is timing his speech to coincide with the extremely presidential fake-news awards Trump has announced will take place on January 17.
“What I’m trying to do with this speech is basically trying to nudge the president back where I think that we, as elected officials, ought to be,” Flake told NBC News’ Kasie Hunt in a bit of wishful thinking.
Flake has been one of the president’s fiercest Republican critics going back to the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. His 2017 book, Conscience of a Conservative, took aim at the nativist, anti-intellectual conservative movement that Trump now presides over. To his credit, Flake has not wavered in his public disdain for Trump, unlike onetime Trump antagonists like Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker. Flake was the only Republican lawmaker to endorse Democrat Doug Jones over alleged sexual predator Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, even sending Jones a check; he savaged Trump’s “shithole” remarks this week; and he is attempting to hammer out a compromise on the DACA program, even as the president undermines it.
For his troubles, Flake has become a hated figure among the Trumpian right. And amid sinking poll numbers in Arizona, Flake announced in October that he would retire from the Senate after his term is up this year, setting off what will be one of the most closely watched and competitive races in the country.
That decision, which was accompanied by a rousing anti-Trump address in the Senate, prompted questions about what, besides speechifying, Flake is doing to rein in the president he thinks is such a danger to the country.
Even though Flake no longer has to worry about appeasing hard-right Arizonans in future primaries, his voting record in no way reflects his Trump apostasy. He has voted with the president on every major initiative, from Obamacare repeal to the massive giveaway to the rich known as the Republican tax plan. FiveThirtyEight calculates that overall he has sided with Trump on legislation and nominations 90.7 percent of the time.
This is partly understandable; Flake is, after all, an old-fashioned Republican who favors low taxes on the rich and minimal government intervention.
But as Josh Barro observed when Flake announced his retirement, the senator hasn’t even pushed back against Trump on matters where the two differ radically, like trade policy. Nor has he offered any resistance to the unprecedentedly sloppy process by which the GOP passed their major tax legislation (and attempted to kill Obamacare).
Flake sees himself as a classic good-government conservative, but he has voted for several of President Trump’s brazenly unqualified judges, and has used his perch on the Judiciary Committee to push for disregarding the recommendations of the once widely respected American Bar Association.
His spotty record matters more than ever in the aftermath of Doug Jones’s win in Alabama, since Republicans now hold only a one-seat majority in the upper chamber. GOP senators, many of whom once showed signs of moving away from President Trump, have been marching more and more in lockstep with him over the past several weeks, and there is increasing evidence that they would largely defend President Trump if he chooses to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Flake has said that if Trump fired the special counsel, it would be a “big problem” for the president. Here is one area where the senator could back up his soaring rhetoric with bold action. With Democrats in his corner, Flake could band together with one other Trump-skeptical Republican (Susan Collins? John McCain?) and promise to gum up the works of the Senate if Trump followed through on his most dangerous impulse yet. With nothing to lose, Flake could cement his legacy as a right-side-of-history conservative, for the good of the country whose values he loves to rhapsodize about.
Could Flake do something that daring? Anything’s possible. But as of now, there is simply no evidence that the senator actually wants to wield his considerable power while he still has it. Instead, we’ll have to settle for another entertaining, ultimately empty speech.