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Sen. Jeff Flake takes on Republican 'denial' over President Trump and the chaos in the White House

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

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

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."

That's not the kind of slogan expected from a senator who is second only to Nevada's Sen. Dean Heller as the most at-risk Republican in the 2018 midterm election.

The first-term senator is channeling his state's rich tradition of Western outsiders, a mash-up of Barry Goldwater's conservative legacy and, more recently, the maverick return of Sen. John McCain to cast the no vote last week that doomed the GOP's failed Obamacare overhaul. 

Flake has always been a bit of an outlier in his party.

A strict fiscal conservative, he 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.

During the height of Trump's fiery campaign trail rhetoric, Flake delivered a speech during Friday night prayers at an Arizona mosque. He has 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.

In the book, excerpted first in Politico, he lambasts his colleagues who were quick to attack President Obama -- hoping to make him a one-term president -- but 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."

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. 

Flake acknowledges he shares blame, taking 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, as few other Republicans are willing to openly criticize the White House, is how many fellow Republicans might follow his lead.

Republicans in recent weeks have shown an increasing willingness to chart their own course or confront the White House, including passing a Russia sanctions bill and defeating the Obamacare repeal effort. Flake's Arizona colleague, Sen. John McCain, provided one of the three Republican votes that ended the GOP healthcare plan.

Many have also warned Trump against firing Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.

But other than Flake, few GOP lawmakers have spoken so critically about Trump and the situation in the White House.

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