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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired October 24, 2017 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Mr. Welch, you know, have you no decency? Enough. And that turned the tide.
So, yes, I do think that there are -- there are certainly parallels. And when enough people say, you know, this is enough, we expect different behavior from our commander in chief and the president of the United States, then it will change. But it hasn't yet.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN: Sarah Palin and Breitbart are saying things along -- things along the lines right now that Trump broke you.
What's your response to that?
FLAKE: I'm still standing.
TAPPER: You're still standing.
FLAKE: No, no, there are other things in life than politics.
And I would -- I can tell you when I would be broken, is if I were to say that the path to reelection is to embrace the president's policies that I disagree with, and condone his behavior, which nobody should condone.
That would be a broken man who does that. So, I feel good about where I am.
TAPPER: Do you think that somebody in the Republican Party, perhaps you, should challenge the president in 2020?
FLAKE: I won't go there. That's a long time away.
TAPPER: So, you're not -- you're not discounting it?
FLAKE: Certainly, I didn't support the president in the last election, and -- but it's early. That time will take care of itself.
TAPPER: OK. That's not a denial, I would like to point out. I'm not trying to get cute.
But, I mean, if you didn't support him last time, and Corker is saying that he made a mistake by supporting him last time... FLAKE: Right. Well, I...
TAPPER: ... do you think there is going to be a movement for Republicans to replace him?
FLAKE: I can just say that -- I can just say I didn't support him last time. I did not vote for the president.
And nothing that he's done has earned my support since that time or made me more likely to vote for him, you know, in the second run. So that's all I will say.
TAPPER: How does this end, Senator? How does this end for President Trump?
Because, I mean, I think that there are a lot of people out there who think that the nation can't take four to eight years of this, of the divisiveness and the mendacity, of the indecency. But if there are only four out of 52 Republicans willing to say, hey, look, I support conservative policies, but lies are not conservative policies, trying to devalue the press, the judiciary, the legislative branch, not to mention the name-calling, this is not what we want for our party, how do you envision this is going to end?
Well, I don't think that people will see the complicity or silence that we have seen so far. I do think we are reaching a point where more people are willing to stand up.
So, no, I don't think that this can continue for that long. At some point, the country will say, that's enough. We have had enough of this kind of behavior, and we expect more of our leaders.
And so that's what I hope happens sooner, rather than later.
TAPPER: Can you give us any insight into the Republican lunch today where President Trump appeared? We're told that his back-and-forth with Senator Corker did not come up.
Was it a warm reception for him? Are there others there like you who share those concerns who have said anything?
FLAKE: Those are private dinners, and I would rather, you know, keep it that way. But there was nothing big, no real news made. Just put it that way.
TAPPER: What do you think President Trump can do, if anything, to try to get the support of people like and Senator Corker back, if that's at all possible?
FLAKE: Well, I certainly hope to be able to work. I have got 14 months left in the Senate. There are a number of things that we need to work on.
One, the president has indicated a willingness to work on DACA and to make sure that these kids who were brought across the border, no fault of their own, are allowed to stay. That's something that's important to me. I would love to work with the president on that.
So, I think there are a number of issues. On some of the trade issues, I'm not where the president is. I hope we can nudge him in the right direction.
But on -- there are many things that we agree with that we can work together on.
TAPPER: There is a friend of mine, Van Jones. He talks about the spiritual leadership that presidents offer sometimes, that after -- or during the JFK presidency, a lot of people were inspired to join the Peace Corps.
TAPPER: That, during the Reagan presidency, a lot of people were inspired to go to Wall Street or to join the military.
What kind of spiritual leader do you think President Trump is? What is he inspiring people to do?
FLAKE: Oh, I don't know how to answer that.
My concerns are well-known. I wrote about them in a book, "Conscience of a Conservative." And so I think that I detailed probably enough there.
TAPPER: But do you think he's -- I guess let me just put it more directly.
Do you think that President Trump is setting a bad example for the nation's children?
Some of the statements that are made about people and seeming to ascribe the worst motives to people as well, that's something we tell our kids not to do. And, you know, just the mean and cruel tweets or language that is sometimes used, that's something that I would certainly, you know, think that we shouldn't do.
TAPPER: Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, thank you so much for your time, sir. We appreciate it.
Please don't be a stranger. You have 14 months left. We're going to have you back, I hope.
FLAKE: We won't.
TAPPER: All right, thanks, Senator. We have got a lot to talk about, of course.
Stick around for more on this breaking news.
TAPPER: Welcome back.
A seismic day in American politics, with Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, openly questioning whether or not President Trump is capable of telling the truth and suggesting that he made a mistake when he supported him, and then, of course, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, just minutes ago announcing on the Senate floor that he's not running for reelection and telling CNN, in his first interview after that speech, that he has serious concerns about President Trump's behavior and that the party, his party, is in a fever right now.
My political panel is here with me. We have a lot to discuss.
Let me start with you, S.E. Cupp, a conservative and a Republican who has also had concerns about President Trump.
What do you hear -- I hope I'm -- am I describing you correctly?
S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, of course.
So, you're giving me a quizzical look.
CUPP: No, no.
TAPPER: What do you hear when you hear Bob Corker and when you hear Jeff Flake? What do you take away from it?
CUPP: You know, separating them out, because I think that Jeff Flake is singular, in that he in the era of Trump was not long for this world.
This is as much about polls as it is his principles, but that book that Jeff Flake referenced, "Conscience of a Conservative," the subtitle -- I just interviewed him on it -- the subtitle is "A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle," which sounds very quaint and almost nostalgic today.
In it, he tells a story of his freshman day as a congressman going to his first Republican retreat and getting so excited that he was going to have a chance to tackle tax reform.
And so, in this era, when tax reform seems like a very lofty goal, even despite Republicans having so much control, Jeff Mormon -- Jeff Flake being a Mormon whose family fled persecution to live in Arizona, they grew up on a ranch, I mean, everything that is happening today in Washington is anathema to every fiber of Jeff Flake's being.
So I'm not truly surprised that this is where he's at.
With Bob Corker, it's a tad different. He was supportive of the president. He had designs on maybe becoming a Cabinet member or a vice president. I think people like Corker, however, were somewhat conned into believing that there would end up being a pivot, that Trump would morph into someone that they could support, that they could manipulate, that they could cajole into doing what they wanted or supporting their agenda.
But, you know, you ask Jeff Flake, Jake, if all of that behavior is counterproductive to Trump's agenda or Flake's agenda. This is the agenda.
As much as any legislation is the Republican-Trump agenda, for Trump, getting people like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker out is a huge part of the agenda. Steve Bannon told us that early. Trump told us that early. And we're just seeing that come to fruition now.
TAPPER: And, Kirsten Powers, a lot of Republicans who are in the administration, who are on Capitol Hill, they think, as I think Bob Corker thought at one point, that the best thing they can do is try to steer President Trump in the right direction, to be ballast in the ship on these stormy seas.
And then Bob Corker ultimately decided, no, this ship's about to crash, and there is nothing I can do, and the captain's not listening to me.
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes, well, I think that they see exactly what's happening, which is that he's not listening to them.
And part of that is because of what Jeff Flake said about one of the reasons he can't run is really because of what the voters want. And it's the voters want you -- he said they don't want you just to be conservative. They want you to be angry, because this is what's so interesting about Jeff Flake. Jeff Flake is very conservative.
POWERS: So we're not talking about somebody who is maybe on the margins, a Susan Collins or someone, who maybe a conservative Republican would say, well, that's just a RINO or whatever.
POWERS: He is a conservative. And so this is not about politics or ideology.
CUPP: Or policy. POWERS: Or policy. This is about not being angry enough and not, I
guess, behaving in as juvenile a manner as the president of the United States does, I mean, because that's what it really comes down to.
TAPPER: Dana Bash, what are you hearing from your sources on Capitol Hill?
Do you think that there will be -- Senator Flake was suggesting that perhaps the dam was going to break, that it would no longer just be Corker, Flake, McCain and Collins, that other Republicans would start to come forward.
You and I both know from off-the-record conversations there are plenty of those Republicans up on Capitol Hill, but they are not willing to say so publicly.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm not so sure that that's the case, particularly when you're talking about people in the House. Everybody's going to be up for reelection who wants to come back in 2018 and a third of the Senate.
And I think that, you know, one of the realities, something that the Senator did not mention in his long speech on the floor, but you got out of him in your interview, is that he was probably the most -- or one of the most vulnerable incumbent Republican senators, not because of a challenge from across the aisle from a Democrat, but because of the primary challenge that he was facing.
And he said point blank that it would be a narrow path, and "I would have had to run a campaign that I couldn't be proud of."
That is his way of saying he was going to lose the Republican nomination if he ran on the kind of principles and the kind of words and rhetoric and theories that you heard him make. Now, there are some who are questioning, OK, why not go out in a blaze of glory? Why not run? Why not try to test the Republican base, to test the idea of the primary process? Why just bow out after you've made these extraordinary statements about how important it is to stand up and fight, he personally is not fighting. But he explained exactly why he chose this path, and I -- to answer your question, I think that there are some people who are going to speak out when it serves them, but I would be surprised if the dam actually breaks and you see one after another, even a couple more do what Jeff Flake and Bob Corker did today.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Everyone, stick around. We'll take another quick break. We'll be right back.
[16:50:00] TAPPER: We're back with our "POLITICS LEAD" and the huge breaking news of today. My panel is back with me for more on all of this, but I want to start with Professor Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. Professor, give us today in historical context two respected Republican Senators, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, both of them offering some really harsh criticism of President Trump. How -- where do you see this a panoply of senators criticizing presidents of their own party?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, look, before the civil war, people would cane each other all the time and there are all sorts of arguments going on, but in recent times this is highly unusual. I mean, this is a first-term, you know, president, one year in office. And he only has a 37 percent approval rating and now leading members of his own party are denouncing him. The question is will that number grow? It was when Barry Goldwater and Republicans turned on Nixon that it began to be the beginning of the end of Nixon. So the question is, is it just a group of three right now or can this become a group of seven or ten?
And, remember, Jeff Flake is going to be there when the Russian investigation is concluded, and what will his voices be? Will a lot of Republicans start trying to drum Donald Trump out of office with the idea that Vice President Pence would be better? I think it's very dramatic, but short-term Donald Trump must feel good today. Two people, he considered an enemy, you know, Corker and Flake, are in the words of as you said, Sarah Palin and Breitbart, they're broken.
TAPPER: I want to play some sound from Senator Bob Corker just because we haven't heard from him this hour and his remarks today were rather surprising. Manu Raju caught him in the halls of the Senate. And Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, not running for re- election. Well, he did not hold back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: The President has great difficulty with the truth. I don't know why he lowers himself to such a low, low standard, the debasement of our nation will be what he'll be remembered most for and he's obviously not going to rise to the occasion as President. I would hope the staff over there would figure out ways of controlling him. World leaders are very aware that much of what he says is untrue. He purposely is breaking down relationships we have around the world that have been useful to our nation.
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Do you think he's a role model to children in the United States?
RAJU: You don't?
CORKER: No, absolutely not.
RAJU: Do you regret supporting him in the election?
CORKER: Let's just put it this way. I would not do that again.
RAJU: You wouldn't support him again?
CORKER: No way. No way.
TAPPER: Dana Bash, that is some of the strongest languages I've ever heard from a Senator criticizing the president of his own party, including the Clinton impeachment when so many senators expressed abject disgust with the behavior of President Clinton. But these accusations and allegations and charges from Senator Corker are really cut to the core of somebody that he finds to almost be irredeemable.
BASH: No question. Look, I think we have in the nine months since Donald Trump has been in the White House and the two-plus years since he's been on the political stage, we've become desensitized to this kind of rhetoric and this kind of feuding, even and especially feuding within the Republican Party. This is not that. This is the Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker who is talking about his concern about world leaders not believing the President of the United States. His job is oversight of the executive branch which includes, of course, and starts with the President of the United States. Now, yes, the two of them have been -- have been feuding and there was -- and he was clearly upset. When Manu caught him, he had just seen a series of tweets, I think five, in the couple of hours from President Trump going after Corker in a very personal way. But this is not just personal that you're hearing from Corker, this is concern about fitness to lead, and that's a whole different level.
TAPPER: And that's right. S.E. Cupp and Kirsten Powers, I mean, this is not just about I don't like these tweets, this is the President, according to Corker, is ruining the standing of the United States around the world.
S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. And I, you know, as you and Dana both mentioned, he is not alone in having those feelings, those deep, deep concerns about our relationships both with allies and then our sort of standing with our -- with our enemies. But I still think there's enough Republicans in the Senate and the House who truly believe that they can sort of excise Trump to a certain extent and get enough done having Republicans in every lever of power to cobble together something meaningful over the next three years. And I think what they are going to find increasingly is that is not possible. It is not going to be possible to be a part of Trump or to deal with Trump or to work around Trump. They're all going to have to become Trump. And that, I think, is what Bob Corker and certainly Jeff Flake were reconciling with, this idea that they'd have to become him both politically, principally and personality wise, and that just -- that just couldn't go.
[16:55:32] TAPPER: Final word, Kirsten?
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think that's exactly what we're seeing. I think that you know, decent, good people are being driven out of public service even if they're people that I wouldn't particularly agree with on a lot of things. You can see like a core decency I think when you listen to Jeff Flake or you listen to Bob Corker. And these are people who realize that there's literally nothing you can do in this environment because there are too many people, frankly, who are going along with it, to just stand alone and be like the one or two people to saying no.
TAPPER: All right. Thanks to everybody in the panel. Be sure to tune into S.E. Cupp's show "UNFILTERED" which is on HLN tonight and every weeknight at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. Wolf Blitzer is in "THE SITUATION ROOM" with much more on our breaking news. That's next.