Jeff Flake, a Republican senator from Arizona, has published a searing piece in Politico accusing his party of being in “denial” about Trump. “We created him, and now we're rationalizing him,” he writes. “When will it stop?”
In the piece, Flake traces his own journey of denial, writing about the “defense mechanisms” he deployed to protect himself from facing up to Trump’s behavior:
I even found myself saying things like, “If I took the time to respond to every presidential tweet, there would be little time for anything else.” Given the volume and velocity of tweets from both the Trump campaign and then the White House, this was certainly true. But it was also a monumental dodge. It would be like Noah saying, “If I spent all my time obsessing about the coming flood, there would be little time for anything else.” At a certain point, if one is being honest, the flood becomes the thing that is most worthy of attention. At a certain point, it might be time to build an ark.
Oof. And yet this is where Flake’s op-ed deserves some scrutiny: What kind of ark does he propose to build? What sort of behavior will he no longer tolerate? The prescriptive portion of Flake’s analysis is a bit thin:
So, where should Republicans go from here? First, we shouldn’t hesitate to speak out if the president “plays to the base” in ways that damage the Republican Party’s ability to grow and speak to a larger audience. Second, Republicans need to take the long view when it comes to issues like free trade: Populist and protectionist policies might play well in the short term, but they handicap the country in the long term. Third, Republicans need to stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the Senate filibuster, that have served us well for more than two centuries.
Given the gravity of the problem Flake outlines, his specific recommendations — that Republicans condemn Trump’s most bigoted rhetoric, speak out for free trade, and protect the filibuster — seem a bit small.
One part of Flake’s assessment seems particularly neglected in his solutions: his rundown of the Russia story, and Trump’s response to it.
Even as our own government was documenting a concerted attack against our democratic processes by an enemy foreign power, our own White House was rejecting the authority of its own intelligence agencies, disclaiming their findings as a Democratic ruse and a hoax. Conduct that would have had conservatives up in arms had it been exhibited by our political opponents now had us dumbstruck.
There is much Flake and his colleagues could do to ensure the truth of the Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is discovered, to strengthen American institutions, and to show that Trump’s efforts to protect himself and his allies from scrutiny will not be tolerated.
Congressional Republicans could, for instance, remove the threat of Trump axing his attorney general in order to impede Bob Mueller’s investigation by making clear that any such firing would be met with overwhelming reprisals, up to and including impeachment proceedings. They could punish Trump for firing then-FBI Director James Comey in order to squelch the Russia investigation by refusing to confirm Christopher Wray, Trump’s handpicked choice for Comey’s successor, and instead insisting on a candidate the Senate has chosen. They could pass a law forcing Trump to turn over his tax returns so the public could be certain there aren’t problematic financial ties between Trump and Russia. They could implement the recommendations Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, made to strengthen the ethics laws around Trump. But Flake doesn’t propose, or even mention, any of these ideas.
I don’t dismiss the courage it took Flake to write this. Only 17 percent of Arizona Republicans disapprove of Trump’s performance as president. And statements like this one, even if they’re not immediately backed by concrete action, are valuable — they embolden other Republicans, send important signals to the rest of the political system, and create a standard by which Flake’s future behavior can be judged.
But if Trump’s presidency is the Great Flood of American politics, it surely requires more than stern words. Flake, to his credit, is no longer denying there’s a problem. But he’s a long way from embracing the hard, controversial policies and votes that might serve as an ark.
“Under our constitution, there simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos,” Flake writes in a particularly powerful passage. “As the first branch of government (Article I), the Congress was designed expressly to assert itself at just such moments. It is what we talk about when we talk about ‘checks and balances.’ Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, ‘Someone should do something!’ without seeming to realize that that someone is us.”