Since Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) blasted President Trump in his retirement speech this past October, he has shown little inclination to back up his criticisms of the president with real action. He initially held out against the GOP tax bill, but voted for it in exchange for a few small concessions. When the White House needed one vote to confirm then-Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) as the new NASA administrator, Flake dutifully changed his vote. Most of his votes against the administration have been largely symbolic, cast when the margin is too wide for one vote to make a difference.
Now, though, Flake is finally threatening real action. Whether he follows through is another matter.
On ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, host George Stephanopolous challenged Flake: “You have given a lot of speeches about the president, talked about his disregard for the truth, stood to tariffs, said he’s disregarding Republican orthodoxy. Yet, you see on issue after issue actually the House and the Senate standing behind this president.” Initially, Flake blamed politics, saying, “I think a lot of people, Republicans in the House and Senate, look at us with a 14 percent institutional favorability rating and long for the president’s 40 percent. So, it makes it difficult that way for a lot of my colleagues to say, hey, let’s stand up to the president.”
But then he admitted that Congress has done a poor job exercising and protecting its constitutional powers. “I do think that unless we can actually exercise something other than just approving the president’s executive calendar, his nominees, judges,” Flake said, “that we [senators] have no reason to be there. So I think myself and a number of senators, at least a few of us, will stand up and say, let’s not move any more judges until we get a vote, for example, on tariffs.”
Flake sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans have a majority of one. And the placing of conservative judges on federal courts has been one of the few tangible successes Trump and his supporters can claim when trying to gin up enthusiasm among GOP voters. So “let’s not move any more judges” is not an idle threat. If the Arizona senator sticks to his guns, he could have considerable leverage over the Trump White House.
And yet, I’ll believe Flake is serious when he actually blocks a judge, and not a moment earlier. He held out for days on the tax bill before trading his vote for peanuts. He has not wavered in support for gutting Obamacare. He still votes with the White House almost 85 percent of the time. Time and again, he has had harsh words for Trump then voted on party lines anyway.
There are other reasons to doubt Flake’s resolve. The issues he has so far suggested he’d make a stand on — tariffs and travel restrictions to Cuba — aren’t top issues for voters. In the case of tariffs, trade is the rare issue where Trump has a deeply held policy stance, so Flake will have particular trouble getting Trump to back down. Lastly, Flake remains a die-hard conservative; it seems unlikely he’ll really want to slow the increase in conservative judges on the federal bench.
Yes, it’s good to see that Flake, six months before the end of his term, is finally realizing that words alone won’t do anything to sway the Trump White House. But let’s wait to congratulate the Arizona senator on finding his backbone until he acts.