Opinion writer

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) today delivered one in a promised series of floor speeches. He started off with a bang:

2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

You get the idea. He slammed the president and the echo chamber around him:

Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently — to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality. . . .

No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.

What he did not say directly, and should have, is that his fellow Republicans don’t merely remain quiet in the face of lies — they add to the attacks on truth and also condemn the press for doing its job. As to the former, how many Senate Republicans still deny climate change or have joined the campaign to discredit the FBI? Just recently, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) almost surely lied about the president’s words (navigating from memory lapse to denial) to further their agenda of cutting immigration, supported by mounds of misstatements ginned up by anti-immigrant groups. How many misstated over and over again that the tax cuts would pay for themselves even when their statements were debunked?

Flake did however go after the worst of Trump’s lies — birtherism, which Trump rode to power, and his nonstop attack on the Russia investigation:

To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” – as the president has many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.

Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.

But here, too, Republicans  are part of the problem. Members of Congress continue to undermine the investigation. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) spread the lie that President Barack Obama “wiretapped” Trump.  And House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) leaves him in his job as Intelligence Committee chairman. Senate Republicans’ questioning of Fusion GPS founder Glenn R. Simpson wasn’t aimed at getting facts but at smearing the witness. They then misrepresented what he said, tried to suppress the transcript and made a patently unfounded criminal referral of Christopher Steele to the Justice Department. Republicans refused to join in a comprehensive report Senate Democrats compiled on Russian interference throughout Europe, perhaps because it details the kind of conduct Trump denies occurring in the United States in 2016 — weaponized social media, hacking and more.

Flake gave an impressive and far-reaching speech indicting Trump’s web of lies and the damage his international pals (e.g., Vladimir Putin) are doing to freedom of the press. He correctly admonished his Senate colleagues that undermining truth strengthens the hand of despots. Give him credit — but only partial credit. Elected Republicans engage in much of the same anti-truth propaganda as the president does. The evening programming of an entire TV cable “news” network is dedicated to conspiracy theories, misleading information about immigrants and terrorists, and refusal to cover facts that contradict the president’s tropes.

Trump did not materialize out of thin air. He masterfully manipulated white grievance and anti-elite conspiracy-mongering. But the ground was plowed by many of Flake’s colleagues and by Republicans’ self-selected news outlets. Getting rid of Trump will help, but unless and until the mind-set that permeates the right is dismantled, the war on the truth will rage on.

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