WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., announced he will not be seeking reelection next year in a scorching speech on the Senate floor suggesting that President Trump and his brand of conservatism is a danger to the United States and its “vulnerable” democratic institutions.
Without ever naming the president directly, Flake shamed his colleagues for their “complicity” in participating in a new political coarseness that starts from the top and has trickled down, endangering American democracy in the process.
“We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve,” Flake said.
“There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles,” Flake told his colleagues. “Now is such a time.”
Flake, who wrote a book earlier this year that was critical of Trump, faced a tough primary challenge from the right to defend his Senate seat in Arizona. Trump, angry over his criticism, and his former adviser Steve Bannon, were planning to back his opponent. “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!” Trump tweeted in August.
Flake joins fellow Republican Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in retiring from the chamber. Trump spent much of Tuesday morning tweeting insults at Corker, who told TV reporters earlier that the president had trouble with the truth and that he regretted supporting him. Among other things, Trump mocked Corker as “Liddle” and said he was “incompetent.”
Flake lamented petty insults in his speech, telling his colleagues Republican that they have lost their way. He called Trump’s behavior “reckless, outrageous and undignified” and warned Republicans that indulging in scapegoating and petty resentments would lead them to become the minority party soon enough.
“Such behavior does not project strength, because our strength comes from our values,” the senator said. “It instead reflects a corruption of spirit and a weakness.”
Flake also expressed bewilderment that traditional Republican values of free trade, immigration, limited government and free markets have been set aside, and that Republicans like him face a “narrower and narrower path” to election.
The Arizona senator said he felt a responsibility to speak up for future generations. “It is often said that children are watching — well, they are. What are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something about this? Why didn’t you speak up?’, what are we going to say?”
Flake prodded his colleagues to admit that the president would not change.
“Mr. President, I rise to say ‘Enough,’” he said. “With respect and humility, I say we have fooled ourselves enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that.”
He also despaired of the president’s effect on foreign relations.
“Despotism loves a vacuum, and our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership,” Flake said. “Why are they doing this? None of this is normal.”
After Flake’s speech, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rose to say he regretted that Flake was retiring, and praised him as a team player who would be sorely missed.