Even though he didn't mention him by name, Sen. Jeff Flake's (R-Ariz.) “I will not be complicit” retirement speech was unequivocally aimed at President Trump. The president's “coarseness” and “undignified behavior” and internal-looking foreign policy are damaging the nation's standing in the world, Flake said.
And he'd rather give up his job than have to pretend he agrees with it all: "[T]here are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles. Now is such a time.”
But on another layer, Flake's parting shot was also aimed at Trump supporters — from those who voted for him to GOP congressional leadership who stand by him.
Actually, it's impossible not to read Flake's speech as an indictment of those who support Trump. The entire premise of it is that Trump is bad for the country and people shouldn't stand by and let him ruin it. So the next logical question is: What does he think of people who aren't speaking out against Trump?
Not good things, apparently. Here are some lines in Flake's remarkable speech that stuck out as a double-edged jab at Trump and his supporters, particularly the GOP leadership:
1. “Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”
Surveys consistently show one of Trump supporters' favorite attributes about him is that he says what's on his mind. It's a refreshing change, ostensibly, from those robotic, teleprompter-reading politicians in Washington.
Flake clearly has no problem saying what's on HIS mind (see: this entire speech). But Flake also thinks what's on Trump's mind is often flat-out offensive. And he argues that Trump supporters aren't distinguishing between the two — honesty and gaucheness — when they brush off Trump's name-calling or gender-based insults as a politician who finally tells it like it is. Flake, shorter: Stop using excuses to support this president.
2. “It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ What are we going to say?”
Flake references his children and grandchildren twice in this speech. It's clearly a central reason he decided to go out in a blaze of anti-Trumpness. But framing his opposition to Trump in this way also harks back to the crude “Access Hollywood” tape that broke weeks before the election. Republican politician after Republican politician said they couldn't stand by Trump anymore because they couldn't explain the vulgar language he used to their children.
Most of them got back on Team Trump after he won the election, of course. Flake appears to be asking his colleagues to have another moment of introspection as fathers and mothers, to see if they can justify their support of Trump now to future generations.
3. “[W]hat happens if ambition fails to counteract ambition? What happens if stability fails to assert itself in the face of chaos and instability? If decency fails to call out indecency?”
On the ambition line, Flake was loosely quoting James Madison, who in the Federalist Papers argued for three coequal branches of government as checks on each other. “Ambition counteracts ambition,” Madison wrote.
Apparently not in 2017, Flake says. He recognized he couldn't win a Republican primary as a prominent Trump critic. He's on the losing side of his party's base politics on trade and immigration, two issues Trump has transformed the party on. So Flake gave up his “ambition” in this metaphor and decided not to bother with reelection so he could spend the next 14 months speaking out against Trump.
Why aren't others? he asks: “Were the shoe on the other foot, would we Republicans meekly accept such behavior on display from dominant Democrats? Of course not, and we would be wrong if we did.”
4. “When we remain silent and fail to act when we know that that silence and inaction is the wrong thing to do — because of political considerations, because we might make enemies, because we might alienate the base, because we might provoke a primary challenge, because ad infinitum, ad nauseam — when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of the institutions of our liberty, then we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.”
There were a lot of moments like this one in Flake's speech. A shorter, looser translation: To let Trump be Trump for the sake of getting reelected is just as bad for democracy as Trump is. As Flake says, this is “far more important than politics.”
Moments after giving this speech, Flake appeared on CNN, where Jake Tapper asked him if his colleagues are privately thinking what the senator just publicly said. Flake didn't really answer. "Some have spoken out, some have not. But I don't want to fault them for it,” he said.
But when you go back and read his speech, it certainly seems like Flake faults those in Congress who stay quiet.
Of course, as Flake and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have made clear, if you're a Republican lawmaker who wants to start speaking your mind on Trump, you better be willing to lose your job for it. Right now, here are 50 other GOP senators who don't seem so inclined.