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Sen. Jeff Flake is one Republican willing to take on President Trump and his party's 'denial'

Sen. Jeff Flake is one Republican willing to take on President Trump and his party's 'denial'
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) after the Senate healthcare vote. (Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agenc)

Sen. Jeff Flake is among the most endangered Republicans running for reelection next year. But he's not exactly acting like it.

The senator from Arizona unleashed a searing criticism Tuesday of President Trump and, more significantly, the GOP's unwillingness to confront the chaos at the White House.

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Republicans, he writes in his new book, are in "denial."

"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," Flake writes in "Conscience of a Conservative."

"And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility."

Such frank criticism of one's own party is an unusual approach in Washington, and some are heralding Flake as a voice of reason in a Congress where most Republicans have been hesitant to confront Trump, especially in states the president won.

But it's actually not surprising coming from the first-term senator, who was never a Trump fan. Flake has always been a bit of an outlier in his more than 16 years in Congress.

Flake is channeling his state's rich tradition as Western outsiders, a mash-up of Barry Goldwater's conservative legacy and, more recently, the dramatic return of Sen. John McCain to cast the deciding Republican "no" vote last week that doomed the GOP's Obamacare overhaul. Flake voted for the plan.

Second only to Nevada's Sen. Dean Heller as the most at-risk Republican in the 2018 midterm election, Flake certainly risks alienating Trump voters he will need next year to win reelection.

But Flake also appears to be calculating that Arizona's independent streak and its shift toward becoming a swing state will reward his McCain-like "straight talk" — or that at least he will be defeated having had his say.

"Certainly it's not the easiest path to reelection," Flake told PBS' Charlie Rose, acknowledging his low net approval ratings in polls. "It makes some people upset, but I felt it was important enough to do."

Flake said, "We politicians have to recognize that there are some things that are more important than reelection."

First elected to the House in 2000 and a strict fiscal conservative, Flake was tea-party-minded long before the rise of the tea party, railing against government spending and waste as a leading budget cutter in the House.

But he also comes from a Mormon tradition of missionary service, having worked for years in Africa. He has adopted a more welcoming attitude to immigrants than many in his party, and was part of the so-called Gang of Eight senators who drafted the 2013 immigration overhaul.

During the early days of Trump's fiery campaign trail rhetoric, Flake delivered a speech during Friday prayers at an Arizona mosque. He traveled to Cuba during the Obama administration, favoring more open relations.

Flake was among just a few Republicans in Congress who didn't vote for Trump, and has been more willing to speak out against White House policies.

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In his book, excerpted first in Politico, he lambastes colleagues who were quick to attack President Obama in hopes of making him a one-term president — but who today have "maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued."

"To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial," he writes.

Those sentences are a not-so-subtle swipe at party leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who orchestrated that strategy, which Flake indirectly argues left Republicans bereft of their own policy ideas.

McConnell dismissed questions Tuesday, saying he had not yet read the book.

"I'll get around to it at some point," McConnell said.

Flake acknowledges he shares blame, accepting some responsibility for his own willingness to duck the hard questions over Trump.

"I've been sympathetic to this impulse to denial, as one doesn't ever want to believe that the government of the United States has been made dysfunctional at the highest levels, especially by the actions of one's own party," he writes.

"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."

What remains unclear, though, is how many fellow Republicans might follow his lead.

Republicans in recent weeks have shown some willingness to chart their own course or confront the White House, including passing a Russia sanctions bill, though the package also sanctioned Iran and North Korea.

Flake's colleague McCain and two other Republicans resisted Trump's insistence that they pass the healthcare bill, and many have also warned Trump against firing Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.

Another Trump critic, fellow Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, also declined to back the president, but he prefers to troll Trump on Twitter rather than in public debate.

For now, that leaves Flake among the few GOP lawmakers who openly have spoken so critically about Trump and the situation in the White House.

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