In highly charged and notably ominous terms, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on Wednesday laid bare his fears about the damage Donald Trump was inflicting on the office he holds, and called out his fellow Republicans for lacking the spine to fight to it.
“Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works,” Flake declared, according to an advanced copy of the commencement address he was delivering to graduates of the Harvard School of Law. “And our Article I branch of government, the Congress, is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily.”
Flake’s rebukes of Trump are hardly new. Since announcing his retirement from Congress, he has been one of a handful of vocal Republican critics of the president, even going to the well of the Senate to deliver his broadsides.
But the language he offered on Wednesday was of a different scale and scope than speeches past. And it was peppered with a dourness not usually seen at generally optimism-tinged commencement speeches.
“All is not well,” Flake told graduates at one point, “We have a sickness of the spirit.” At another moment, he openly wondered whether, societally, the country had bottomed out.
“This is it, if you have been wondering what the bottom looks like,” he said, per his prepared remarks. “This is what it looks like when you stress-test all of the institutions that undergird our constitutional democracy, at the same time. You could say that we are witnesses to history, and if it were possible to divorce ourselves from the obvious tragedy of this debacle, I suppose that might even be interesting, from an academic perspective. The way some rare diseases are interesting to medical researchers.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast hours before he took the stage, Flake stressed that the latter half of his speech was more upbeat; which it was, in its encouragement of graduates to go into the breach of civil and political service at a time of both great need and opportunity.
“[O]pposing this president and much of what he stands for is not an act of apostasy—it is, rather, an act of fidelity,” Flake says at one point.
But the main thrust of the speech, Flake told The Daily Beast, reflects his belief that the calamities facing the country had only “deepened” since his speech on the Senate floor last fall, inching the country closer and closer to a “constitutional crisis.” Under such stress, certain political institutions have held. The press, he argued, was one. The Department of Justice was another, he said, giving specific kudos to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for navigating the proto-authoritarian demands of a president to, among other things, investigate those investigating him.
It was the institution he was in, and the party which he occupies, that had so far failed the test.
“I hope that more of my colleagues would speak up,” Flake told The Daily Beast. “Sometimes we are starting to look more and more like the cabinet meeting [with members exhibiting overwhelming obsequiousness to Trump]. And that’s concerning. This is an independent branch of government. We have to more jealously guard our prerogatives.”
For all his tough words, Flake’s vision of a Congress actually standing as a bulwark against Trump is notably less combative than some the president’s liberal agitators would prefer. The senator, for instance, supported a bill to shield Special Counsel Robert Mueller from a presidential firing. But he also said he recognizes concerns over that bill’s constitutionality. Flake acknowledged that he votes consistently with the president’s legislative agenda but argued that it was misplaced to demand that he “ought to hobble” Trump on items in which they had ideological agreement. He had opposed certain Trump nominees, including just confirmed CIA Director Gina Haspel, and worked behind the scenes with the White House to defeat others before they were announced. But “my feeling is that unless there is something disqualifying, the president ought to get his or her choices,” he explained.
What Flake wants more than a Congress that simply says no to Trump is one that re-asserts its institutional prerogatives in the face of Trumpism. Passing an Authorization for Use of Military Force is a start. Moving an immigration bill to the president’s desk even if the president vetoes it, would be another step forward.
Flake suspects that this is what voters want too. And as he gets set to depart the Senate, his suspicion is that things actually might get better—that the country has, indeed, reached bottom—once those acting in a “supine” manner are forced to depart too.
“I do think that elections are pretty clarifying. Nothing clarifies like a bad election loss and we may be heading there as Republicans,” Flake said. “Whether I wish it or not, I do think it is coming. And I think we brought this on ourselves.”