Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) wrote a book, delivered speeches and responded to interview questions over the past year about the threats that President Trump poses to our democracy and about the urgent need to uphold democratic norms, a free press and faith in objective truth. He made a speech again on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
“The president attacked [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions by name,” Flake said, “for refusing to cover up allegations of Republican misconduct. The president’s concern was not for justice, but for the political fortunes of the accused because their congressional seats might now be at risk of falling to Democrats. In doing this, the president is projecting a vision unto the system of American justice that is both bizarre and, more important, destructive.”
He explained Trump’s assault on democracy:
We know by now that this particular president seems to have a profound unease with both justice and truth, and so has been at unrelenting war with both, virtually since the moment he swore the oath. Not because there is any deficiency in justice or truth that requires his intervention, mind you, but for other less noble reasons. The president seems to think that the office confers on him the ability to decide who and what gets investigated in the United States and who and what does not. Weekly it seems this president has been threatening to, ‘get involved’ in the function of the Justice Department, sometimes intimidating, sometimes plainly threatening to corrupt the independence of justice in America. He has overtly expressed a desire for his political opponents to be investigated and almost two years into his presidency, he presides over boisterous rallies where the last election is re-litigated and chants of “Lock her up!” fill the halls. None of this is normal or acceptable.
Flake admonished his colleagues to curb Trump’s dangerous, anti-democratic antics. “I appeal to the leadership of this body to speak out. … When the president so blatantly calls for the Department of Justice to act as an arm of the Republican Party, then the leaders of the Republican Party in this body need to stand and say that the president is out of bounds,” Flake counseled. He added: “The United States Senate is not the place to come for deniability. We must do what we can to curb the destructive impulses of this White House. We must encourage the administration of justice.”
Flake thinks he sees a pattern: “It seems to be a deliberate program by which he intends to weaken the institution of American justice, threaten its independence and perhaps set the stage for some future assault on it — the firing of the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, and perhaps even the special counsel. … We must also say in no uncertain terms that to call this investigation a witch hunt is wrong. To call [special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s] team thugs is wrong. Relentlessly slandering the attorney general of the United States is wrong. It is a travesty. And it is unbecoming of the office of the presidency.”
His impassioned pleas sidestep the obvious means to help contain Trump, to rebuild our institutions and to short-circuit the attack on American justice: Do not confirm a Supreme Court nominee weeks before the midterm elections, considering that the nominee refuses to give any assurance that he will restrain the president’s “destructive impulses” and might well have been nominated precisely because he harbors such an expansive view of executive power. As Flake notes, the Senate shouldn’t delve into deniability, refusing to confront the challenge posed by a president (who is, in effect, an unindicted co-conspirator) seeking to put on the court the justice most likely to cut him a break when it comes to his own obligations to comply with judicial processes and liability under the laws that apply to all citizens.
In fact, voting to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh without conditions will send precisely the wrong message to Trump, emboldening him to take more potshots at our Constitution under the belief (accurate or not) that Kavanaugh will cut him a break. Instead, Flake can make clear that he will not vote to confirm unless Kavanaugh is much more forthcoming on his views on executive power or agrees to recuse himself from cases involving Trump personally. If Kavanaugh won’t do either, Flake should vote against the nomination. If not, he will be one of those enablers who will be helping Trump project “a vision unto the system of American justice that is both bizarre and, more important, destructive.” Flake’s advice his solid; now he should follow it.