On Wednesday, April 10, The Daily Princetonian sat down with former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake for an interview. Flake — a member of the Republican party — is famous for his public and vocal criticism of President Donald Trump, culminating in a fiery 2017 speech on the Senate floor, in which he announced he would not seek re-election for a second term. Now, as a contributor for CBS News, he continues to denounce the current administration and many of its policies.
Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of the conversation.
The Daily Princetonian: Senator Flake, I want to begin with a nonpolitical question: what was the most recent book you’ve read, and would you recommend it?
Jeff Flake: The last book I read was “Love Your [Enemies],” by Arthur Brooks. He’s the current president of the American Enterprise Institute, and he writes a lot about the reasons why people are having a tough time getting along, especially politically. The issue is not just hate, but contempt — which is worse than hate; it means you just can’t consider your opponents’ arguments. It’s a great book, I’d recommend it.
DP: It’s funny that you mention Arthur Brooks. You, like Mr. Brooks, have been a very adamant anti-Trumper within the Republican party. Some, however, would argue that you had more influence in your role as a senator in opposing the President, rather than as somebody watching from the outside. How would you respond to those critics?
JF: Well, I wouldn’t argue for a minute that I have more influence outside of the Senate than inside of the Senate. I would have liked to have served for another term, but the dilemma I had was that, in order to do so, I would have had to adopt some of the President’s positions that I could not adopt, and condone behavior that I simply could not condone. In the end, I would have had to stand on a campaign stage while people shouted “lock her up,” or while the President ridiculed my colleagues or minorities — and I just couldn’t do it.
But I’m trying to use whatever platform I can to talk about how the Republican Party needs to return to a more decent politics, and return to the principles that have animated the party for a generation or two. If we don’t, I fear that the party will lose relevance in the future — lose adherence in the future, certainly.
DP: You mentioned how the President ridiculed your colleagues. Is there a specific moment that you feel was the Trump presidency’s lowest point?
JF: Oh, where do you start? During the campaign, when he went after [former Senator] John McCain and said he couldn’t respect him because he was captured, and a few times after that. Also, when he referred to African countries as “s-hole” countries — the kind of damage that does to our international relationships, it means a lot.
Similarly, when the President stands next to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and basically says, “I believe him and not our intelligence agencies.” Or when he stands next to [Philippines president Rodrigo] Duterte, and laughs when Duterte refers to the media as “spies.” Or, when he stood next to [North Korea president] Kim-Jong Un and calls him a “great leader.” It’s tough to pick; there’s just been so many. Those things are tough to unravel.
Words matter, particularly when the President uses words that were so infamously uttered by dictators. Now, modern dictators use the President’s words in order to suppress their own opposition, or to jail journalists on “fake news” charges.
DP: I want to shift gears a little bit away from President Trump towards policy more generally: what is one issue that you believe not enough Americans know about that every American should know about?
JF: I think the danger posed by a $23 trillion debt — and a trillion dollar deficit adding to that every year — seems to have been forgotten. The only potential presidential candidate even mentioning it is [former Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz, and he’s independent. No Republicans are talking about it, certainly not the President. It seems to have dropped off the landscape.
Every other country seems to be affected when their debt hits a certain percentage of their GDP, but we’ve been able to blissfully blast through it. But it won’t last forever; at some point, other countries will stop buying our debt. And once we’ve gone over that cliff, programs we might have been able to use to stimulate a sluggish economy — those tools are no longer available.
We know the contours of what it’s going to take to fix this. [The 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform] laid it out pretty well. The question is whether we have the courage to actually solve this — and it’s going to take both parties buying in, and that’s very difficult to see right now.
DP: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the 2020 election at all. In the spirit of bipartisanship, could you see yourself supporting the Democratic candidate against President Trump?
DP: To what extent? A President Harris, or a President Sanders, or a President Mayor Pete?
JF: Well, we don’t know who’s going to be the candidate. But I’ve supported Democrats in the past — I wrote a campaign check to [Alabama Senator] Doug Jones over [Alabama senate candidate] Roy Moore, and I think that was the right thing to do.
But I disagree with the notion that a Republican could never support a Democrat. In the 1990s, when David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Republican members of the Senate and the House flew down to New Orleans to campaign against him.
I do hope that the Democratic party nominates somebody who has broader appeal than some of the candidates so far. But I do hope that there’s somebody I can support.
DP: I’ll just write “Jeff Flake supports Bernie Sanders” in the article.
JF: [Laughter]. Your words, not mine!