Jeff Flake’s scathing critique of Donald Trump roiled the Capitol – and potentially his own reelection bid — on Tuesday as the first-term senator pressed his case that the GOP aided and abetted the president’s rise.
Flake’s fellow GOP senators applauded him for writing his new book on conservatism, yet few were willing to endorse his central message: Their party has done little to push back against Trump. Flake’s detractors, meanwhile, seized on the treatise as another example of how the Arizona Republican, who made his mark earlier in his career as a fiscal conservative, is nevertheless not conservative enough.
“I think Jeff’s got a fairly strongly held view about where we are as a party and where we need to go and I think it’s fine for him to articulate that,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 GOP senator. When asked whether many other Republicans subscribe to Flake’s view, Thune added: “Hard to say.”
“I think it’s fine that everybody has different opinions about where we are and where we need to go,” Thune said. “He chose to express his and some members may choose not to express theirs. But we’re a party that’s got a lot of opinions and diversity of opinions."
Even the most ardent Trump critics on Capitol Hill distanced themselves from Flake’s blistering critique, laid out in his newly-released book, “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.”
“President Trump won. I respect his victory,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) when asked about Flake’s book. “I want to help him with health care and do other things that I think we could do together, like cutting taxes. I’ll push back against ideas that I think are bad for the country like changing the rules of the Senate. And that’s the way I’m going to engage the president.”
Flake’s 140-page manifesto is a daring move politically, considering the first-term senator is taking direct shots at Trump in a midterm cycle when he’s likely to be challenged from the right, possibly with the help of the president himself.
Flake had tamped down his critiques of Trump somewhat during the early months of his presidency. But the unvarnished arguments in his book has revived Flake’s anti-Trump stance during the campaign, when the senator openly criticized his standard bearer’s policies and boorish rhetoric.
"If we ascribe the worst motives to our opponents and demean them and call them clowns or losers, you just lose the ability to sit down and solve the big issues and actually enact conservative policy,” Flake said on MSNBC Tuesday.
“That’s the paradox of all of this. You know, somehow conservatism has become being mean or loud and you can’t enact conservative policy if you act that way."
One GOP senator mused, “I don’t know that the book changes anybody’s perception” of Flake’s relationship with Trump.
“There’s no new revelation here,” the senator added.
During his first term in the Senate, Flake crafted a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker — particularly on immigration reform — despite his history in the House as a conservative rabble-rouser primarily focused on reining in federal spending. Hailing from a state that has benefited from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Flake has also frequently spoken out against the rising protectionist sentiment in the GOP that helped fuel Trump’s ascent among primary voters.
The harsh critique of the sitting president by a member of his own political party is especially notable considering that Flake is one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection next year, with threats coming from his right.
Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully tried to knock off Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in a primary last year, is running again. Meanwhile, the White House has spoken privately with other potential primary challengers to Flake, including Arizona state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state party chairman Robert Graham.
Trump has made clear his own personal animus for Flake, talking up the prospect of spending $10 million of his own money to defeat the Arizona Republican next year.
Among Democrats being named as potential challengers in a general election include Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Randy Friese, a member of the Arizona House of Representatives.
In an interview Tuesday, Ward — who most recently made headlines when she said McCain, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, should resign — lashed into Flake for writing a “kind of sad” book and being “too weak to represent Arizona.”
“He was swallowed up by the swamp, and it’s happened to a lot better people than Sen. Flake,” Ward said. “And then suddenly, come campaign time, he’s out trying to create a new Jeff Flake who doesn’t really exist in the hopes that the Republican electorate and the electorate in general will be misled enough to put him back in Washington, D.C.”
Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham chimed in to tweet that "I look forward to campaigning against @JeffFlake in Arizona and for one of his able primary challengers," while also slamming Flake and McCain as "de facto Dems on most key issues."
Flake’s reelection campaign director, Josh Daniels, countered by touting Flake’s longtime support of banning congressional earmarks. "No one can deny Senator Flake’s conservative record," Daniels said by email.
On Capitol Hill, other Republicans weren’t as quick as Ward to weigh in.
Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) all said they hadn’t yet read excerpts from Flake’s book. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) similarly dodged when confronted with Flake’s indictment of GOP leaders as “in denial.”
“I haven’t had a chance to read Jeff Flake’s book, but I’m going to do that,” McConnell told reporters.
Pressed again to answer Flake, who described his own leaders as more devoted to “making Obama a one-term president” — a direct reference to McConnell — than “advancing a conservative policy agenda,” the majority leader appeared to contain a grin as he added that he would “get around to [reading the book] at some point.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he read an excerpt of Flake’s book and complimented some of his colleague’s arguments.
“I think that he made a good point when he was talking about how we as a party attract a larger base,” Tillis said. “Any time that we just focus on one segment of a party, it’s at the risk of making us a smaller, less relevant party in terms of national and statewide elections in purple states.”
But other GOP senators came to Trump’s defense.
“I’m grateful that President Trump is in the Oval Office and not Hillary Clinton,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said in a brief interview. “And I have great respect for the president, the vice president, the team he’s assembled. I think his appointment of General Kelly as chief of staff was an outstanding move — any time you face challenges, one of the best things to do is put a Marine in charge.”
Flake’s reelection race has seen little independent public polling so far, though Ward’s campaign last month released a survey it commissioned that showed her 17 percentage points ahead of the incumbent with Arizona’s GOP primary voters. Flake’s overall approval rating with Arizonans, however, sat at 37 percent in last month’s Morning Consult senatorial rankings, while 45 percent disapproved.
Whether Flake’s candid slap at Trump boomerangs on him remains to be seen. But Republicans were ready to give him a wide berth to be candid. And it was also clear Flake has his share of Democratic fans.
“I’m not gonna comment on his comments,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who collaborated closely with Flake in the so-called Gang of Eight talks over immigration. “I think he’s one of the finest people I’ve met in politics in terms of his principles and morality.”