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"I Will Not Be Complicit": Flake Announces Retirement, Joins Corker in Blasting Trump
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) shocked Washington on Tuesday, announcing his retirement in a floor speech bemoaning the "disrepair and destructiveness of our politics" under President Donald Trump. Flake declared that it was a time "when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles," urging his colleagues to join him in ending "our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs" and "our accommodation of the unacceptable."
Flake never uttered the President's name in his remarks, but he made a number of thinly-veiled references to his party's leader. "We must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue — with the tone set at the top," he said. "We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal," he continued. Flake pointed to many of the defenses of Trump's rhetoric offered by his surrogates, refusing to excuse "reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior" as "telling it like it is" and declaring that such behavior "does not project strength."
He also shot down the frequent claim that a "pivot" is coming. "We have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it," Flake said. "We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that." And he referred to a "segment of my party" that "believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect." Calling it "a matter of duty and conscience," Flake said he could not join them in silence as "the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters
Flake blasted terms such as "the new normal" and "politics as usual" that he said serve as accommodating to an era that is anything but. "We must never regard as 'normal' the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals," he said. "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."
"[Now is] a moment when it seems that our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than it is by our values and our principles," Flake said, later referring to "the state of our disunion," "the indecency of our discourse," "the coarseness of our leadership," and "the compromise of our moral authority."
Flake called on his fellow senators to join him in standing against the behavior he labeled as "destructive to a democracy." He continued: "When the next generation asks us, 'Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?' — what are we going to say?" Announcing that he would not seek re-election for a second term, Flake declared: "I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so...I will not be complicit."
Flake's decision to quit the Senate was quickly lamented among senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers, and cheered by many Republicans who opposed him, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and his allies. Andy Surabian, an adviser to Great America Alliance (the Bannon-backed group challenging many GOP incumbents) and Bannon's former White House deputy, called Flake's announcement "a monumental win for the entire Trump movement," while Bannon allies gloated to reporters that he had claimed "another scalp." Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow tweeted that Bannon, who serves as the website's executive chairman, reacted to Flake's announcement with a message to other like-minded senators: "Our movement will defeat you in primaries or force you to retire."
But on the Senate floor, the response was somber, as Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) led senators of both parties in giving Flake a standing ovation. Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO) called it "an extraordinarily depressing day in the history of the United States Senate"; Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) also said he was "depressed." Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) was reportedly holding back tears as he praised his Arizona colleague. In a statement, Coons said he is "proud to count [Flake] as among my closest friends in the chamber," noting his concern for the Senate after Flake and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) make their exits. Asked where the Senate goes once such voices critical of Trump leave, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) answered: "I don't know."
In his address, Flake urged his colleagues to ignore "political considerations," acknowledging that "we might make enemies...we might alienate the base...[and] we might provoke a primary challenge." Yet, announcing his retirement meant he would not have to face those realities any longer, a white flag of surrender to Bannon-backed primary opponent Kelli Ward, who posed a serious threat to his re-election in 2018. Without Flake, the Senate race has been upended; his move could hurt Ward, who might now face a more difficult establishment opponent.
But Flake's exit is a huge victory for Bannon and his wing of the party, who have now succeeded in purging Flake, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), and Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL). Bannon plans to pose primary challenges to almost every Republican senator in 2018 as he seeks to change the makeup of the Republican Party for good.
Flake is a longtime opponent of President Trump, refusing to endorse him in the 2016 election and penning "Conscience of a Conservative" earlier this year, a book largely seen as a rejection of Trump's ideology.
Flake bashed Trump just hours after the President left the Capitol to address a Senate Republican lunch that did not provide the unity GOP leadership had hoped for. Corker pre-empted the meeting with appearances on four television networks, explicitly going after Trump on each one, a new stage in his continued offensive against the President. Corker told CNN that Trump "has great difficulty with the truth," adding that he "lowers himself to such a low, low standard and debases our country." Asked if the President was a good role model for children, the Tennessean demurred. Corker also announced his retirement recently, another GOP senator unburned by the fear of a primary challenge and readily speaking his mind.
"The meeting with Republican Senators yesterday, outside of Flake and Corker, was a love fest with standing ovations and great ideas for USA!" President Trump tweeted this morning, singling out the two Senate retirees as the sole obstacles to GOP unity. Trump also said this morning that they both "had zero chance of being elected," which is why they both declined bids for re-election. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also did not mourn the Senate's losing Flake, calling his retirement "the right decision" while brushing off attacks from his and Corker as "petty."
Do defections from Flake and Corker signal a new movement inside the GOP? Flake told NBC that he hoped to be nearing a "tipping point" in Republican opposition to President Trump, pointing to Joseph Welch's sharp rebuke of Joseph McCarthy in 1954 ("Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"). Flake also cited Welch's famous words in a sharp Washington Post op-ed, titled "Enough," a clarion call for Republicans to join him and stem the tide against the President.
So far, Flake and Corker stand alone.
So much news from Tuesday:
"Clinton campaign, DNC paid for research that led to Russia dossier": "The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped fund research that resulted in a now-famous dossier containing allegations about President Trump’s connections to Russia and possible coordination between his campaign and the Kremlin, people familiar with the matter said." (Washington Post)
"U.S. court sides with illegal immigrant teen seeking an abortion": "A 17-year-old illegal immigrant in federal custody in Texas can have an abortion immediately despite the objections of President Donald Trump’s administration, a U.S. appeals court decided on Tuesday in a ruling spearheaded by Democratic-appointed judges." (Reuters)
"Former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort Faces Another Money-Laundering Probe": "The Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office is pursuing an investigation into possible money laundering by Paul Manafort, said three people familiar with the matter, adding to the federal and state probes concerning the former Trump campaign chairman." (Wall Street Journal)
"Trump targets 11 nations in refugee order": "President Donald Trump issued an executive order Tuesday to restart the refugee resettlement program, which was suspended for 120 days as part of the president’s travel ban. The order initiates a new 90-day review period for the administration to conduct an “in-depth threat assessment” of...11 countries, according to a senior administration official." (Politico)
"Trump Asks GOP Senators for Show of Hands on Fed Nominee Choices": "President Donald Trump asked Senate Republicans for a show of hands in support of potential nominees for chairman of the Federal Reserve as he took part in a lunch meeting Tuesday with the fractious caucus, two lawmakers said." (Bloomberg)
"Supreme Court won't hear arguments on legality of travel ban": "Justices dismissed the second of two cases challenging the legality of the President's controversial travel ban, saying that key provisions of Trump's March executive order have expired." (CNN)
The President's Day
President Donald Trump spends the day in Dallas, Texas. At 3:30pm local time, Trump will participate in a briefing on hurricane recovery efforts. At 4:30pm, he will participate in a roundtable with RNC supporters. At 5:20pm, the President will address a reception benefitting both his re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee. Trump will depart Dallas at 6:25pm.
Today in Congress
The Senate: The upper chamber will hold debate and a procedural vote today on the nomination of Scott L. Park to be a U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Oklahoma. Palk, an assistant dean at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, was first nominated to the seat by former President Barack Obama in 2015.
The House: The lower chamber will vote today on the Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act, a measure expanding sanctions on Iran's ballistic missile program. The House will also consider three additional bills targeting the militant group Hizbollah, as well as a bill modifying the process for when a government agency is required by a consent decree or settlement agreement to take a regulatory action.