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Retiring GOP Senator Blasts His President and His Party. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 24, 2017 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Here we go, top of the hour. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Breaking news, a major development in the Republican civil war. We can now report that Arizona Senator Jeff Flake says he will not seek reelection, will not seek reelection.

Mark Preston is up live with me now.

Mark Preston, why? Wow.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Well, I think we will hear from him very shortly, Brooke, but he certainly was under a lot of fire from President Trump and supporters of President Trump.

He didn't necessarily see eye to eye with him when it came to the issue of immigration, for instance. Senator Flake represents a state that is along the border. And him and as well as Senator John McCain did not necessarily agree with Donald Trump's vision of building a wall and in others areas that he was trying to crack down when it came to immigration.

Now, we should say this about Jeff Flake. A longtime member of the House, first elected back in 2000, this was his first term. He was elected to the Senate in 2012, somebody who was a conservative conscience of the Senate in many ways, tried to stay true to his conservative beliefs.

But you have to wonder at this point, Brooke, has he had enough? And we have seen that with Bob Corker, who just recently announced, the Tennessee senator, that he is going to step down after two terms. Now, with these two gentlemen gone, could there be a door opening where we see perhaps more Republicans on the Senate decide to leave the chamber or even across the capital in the House of Representatives, where we have already seen Republicans decide not to seek reelection in 2018?

BALDWIN: OK. I'm just going to talk to my control room really quickly.

Guys, is this live or this is -- no. OK. We're just -- file video of Senator Flake. I was going to say, we need to be listening.

Phil Mattingly is with me.

Mark, don't go too far.

Phil Mattingly is with me as well. He covers Capitol Hill each and every day.

Just also more background on Senator Flake. He wrote that book not too long ago. Mark mentioned talking about the Republican conscience, but again there very critical of the president.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it.

And, look, he was looking at a very difficult race in the state of Arizona, a state where Democrats got a top-tier candidate to run against him, but also Republicans. There are serious primary challenges that have been coming up there. Steve Bannon, obviously, the former chief strategist of the White House, has been eying candidates down there, Kelli Ward being one of them, an individual who lost to Senator John McCain in his reelection.

She is in the race right now. So there were difficulties on the political side of things. Obviously, Arizona is a state that demographically has been changing quite a bit over the years. Democrats thought that was a potential pickup opportunity before this occurred.

I'll tell you, Brooke, that we were the ones who broke the news to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer when he was doing his press conference just now. He didn't say anything. He just stopped, stared at the cameras and had kind of a semi-shocked, but also semi- mischievous look on his face.

There's a recognition inside the Democratic Party that this is a potential pickup. But if you want to talk about Jeff Flake -- and I think what Mark was saying was extremely relevant and extremely kind of key on everything right now -- what he's done over the last seven, eight, nine months, is he's been unequivocal about his views about the president and about where the president stands on policy issues.

And I think the thing that is most surprising, perhaps, for some people is, on his policy views, on his ideological views, there are few people who are more conservative on all things except for maybe immigration than Senator Jeff Flake.

But he's repeatedly bucked at least verbally what the president has said, what the president has proposed, the president's policies and the president's viewpoint just kind of almost on everything right now. And his decision to leave kind of makes clear that there will be another Republican in the U.S. Senate who doesn't owe anything to anybody, isn't concerned about reelection, and now is essentially a free agent and can do whatever he wants to do moving forward, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Phil, just with me.

But, Bianna Golodryga, also sitting next to me, talk about an unprecedented moment, where, not five minutes ago, we were just talking about Senator Corker and how he vociferously today and even back to post-Charlottesville criticizing the president, and now Senator Jeff Flake. Is this an inflection point now?


Look, on the one the hand, you could say the writing was on the wall. We have seen these two feuding, the president and Senator Flake, over the past few months now. Senator Flake said today he couldn't in good conscience remain in the Republican Party. Just like the president and Senator Corker, the president and Senator Flake were exchanging words via Twitter.

We remember not too long ago the president went to a rally in Phoenix where his entire staff was begging him, begging him, please, including, remember, Mitch McConnell said do not invoke Senator Flake and do not talk negative about him. He did talk negatively about him, but he didn't say his name.


I think a lot of people are going to be looking at Nevada as well, Dean Heller, to what he may do and what his decision may be, whether or not he's going to continuing next year as well.

But I think you are starting to see some of the vocal critics of this president, for one reason or the other, say they can no longer remain in this party and won't seek reelection. That does mean, however, that we still have a little bit over a year to hear from some of them.

And, as we know, especially with Senator Corker, these are very powerful senators.

BALDWIN: These are powerful senators, Mark Preston, or, Gloria Borger, I have got you.

Adding the voices, Gloria Borger joining us as well here on the news.

What does this tell you? I guess the list so far isn't too long, but it's now officially a list of these establishment Republicans who are, for lack of a better term, you know, bowing out as they are -- scathing criticism of the president of the United States.


BALDWIN: Here he is. Forgive me. Let's listen.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: At a moment when it seems that our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than by our own values and principles, let me begin by noting a somewhat obvious point that these offices that we hold are not ours indefinitely.

We are not here simply to mark time. Sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office. And there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles. Now is such a time.

It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret, regret because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority.

And by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs.

It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order, that phrase being the new normal. But we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set at the top.

We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country, the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency, the reckless provocations most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve.

None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal. We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that that is just the way things are now.

If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that it is just politics as usual, then heaven help us. Without fear of the consequences, and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal.

They are not normal.

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.

And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength, because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit and weakness.

It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going 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?

Mr. President, I rise today to say, enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal.

With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it.


We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that.

Here today, I stand to say that we would be better served, we would better serve the country by better fulfilling our obligations under the Constitution by adhering to our Article 1 old normal, Mr. Madison's doctrine of separation of powers.

This genius innovation which affirms Madison's status as a true visionary, and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51, held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract with each other, if necessary.

"Ambition counteracts ambition," he wrote.

But what 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?

Were the shoe on the other foot, we Republicans -- would we Republicans meekly accept such behavior on display from dominant Democrats?

Of course we wouldn't. And we would be wrong if we did.

When we remain silent and fail to act, when we know 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 our institutions and our liberty, we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations.

Those things are far more important than politics.

Now, I'm aware that more politically savvy people than I will caution against such talk. I'm aware that there is a segment of my party that believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect.

If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States.

If I have been critical, it's because I believe it is my obligation to do so, and as a matter and duty of conscience.

The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined, and as the alliances agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters, the notion that we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavioral is ahistoric, and I believe profoundly misguided.

A president -- a Republican president named Roosevelt had this to say about the president and a citizen's relationship to the office -- quote -- "The president is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole."

He continued: "Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that there should be -- that there should be a full liberty to tell the truth about his acts. And this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile."

President Roosevelt continued: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by a president right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public" -- unquote.

Acting on conscience and principle in a manner -- is the manner in which we express our moral selves. And, as such, loyalty to conscience and principles should supersede loyalty to any man or party.

We can all be forgiven for failing to measure from time to time. I certainly put myself at the top of the list of those who fall short in this regard. I am holier than none.

But, too often, we rush to salvage principle -- not to salvage principle, but to forgive and excuse our failures, so that we might accommodate them and go right on failing, until the accommodation itself becomes our principle.


In that way, and over time, we can justify almost any behavior and sacrifice any principle.

I'm afraid that this is where we now find ourselves.

When a leader correctly identifies real hurt and insecurity in our country, and, instead of addressing it, goes to look for someone to blame, there is perhaps nothing more devastating to a pluralistic society.

Leadership knows that most often a good place to start in assigning blame is to look somewhat closer to home. Leadership knows where the buck stops.

Humility helps. Character counts. Leadership does not knowingly encourage or feed ugly or debased appetites in us.

Leadership lives by the American creed, e pluribus unum, from many, one.

American leadership looks to the world, and just as Lincoln did, sees the family of man. Humanity is not a zero sum game.

When we have been at our most prosperous, we have been at our most principled. And when we do well, the rest of the world does well.

These articles of civic faith have been critical to the American identity for as long as we have been alive. They are our birthright and our obligation.

We must guard them jealously and pass them on for as long as the calendar has days. To betray them or to be unserious in their defense is a betrayal of the fundamental obligations of American leadership. And to behave as if they don't matter is simply not who we are.

Now the efficacy of American leadership around the globe has come into question. When the United States emerged from World War II, we contributed about half of the world's economic activity.

It would have been easy to secure our dominance, keeping those countries who had been defeated or greatly weakened during the war in their place.

We didn't do that.

It would have been easy to focus inward. We resisted those impulses. Instead, we financed reconstruction of shattered countries and created international organizations and institutions that have helped provide security and foster prosperity around the world for more than 70 years.

Now it seems that we, the architects of this visionary, rules-based world order that has brought so much freedom and prosperity are the ones most eager to abandon it. The implications of this abandonment are profound. And the beneficiaries of this rather radical departure in the American approach to the world are the ideological enemies of our values.

Despotism loves a vacuum, and our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership.

Why are they doing this? None of this is normal. And what do we, as United States senators, have to say about it? The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics, because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity.

I have children and grandchildren to answer to.

And so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit or silent.

I decided that I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself of the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles.

To that end, I am announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.

It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration has a narrower to narrow path to nomination in the Republican Party, the party that has so long defined itself by its belief in those things.

It is also clear to me for the moment that we have given in or given up on the core principles, in favor of a more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment.

To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess that we have created are justified. But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.

There is an undeniable potency to a populist appeal by mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems. And giving in to the impulse to scapegoat and belittle -- the impulse to scapegoat and belittle threatens to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking people.


In the case of the Republican Party, those things also threaten to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking minority party.

We were not made great as a country by indulging in or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorifying in the things that divide us and calling fake things true and true things fake.

And we did not become the beacon of freedom in the darkest corners of the world by flouting our institutions and failing to understand just how hard-won and vulnerable they are.

This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more. And I say, the sooner the better. Because we have a healthy government, we must also have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith.

We must argue our positions fervently and never be afraid to compromise. We must assume the best of our fellow man and always look for the good.

Until that day comes, we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it, because it does.

I plan to spend the remaining 14 months of my Senate term doing just that.

Mr. President, the graveyard is full of indispensable men and women. None of us here is indispensable, nor were even the great figures of history who toiled at these very desks in this very chamber to shape the country that we have inherited.

What is indispensable are the values that they concentrated in Philadelphia and in this place, values which have endured and will endure for so long as men and women wish to remain free.

What is indispensable is what we do here in defense of those values.

A political career does not mean much if we are complicit in undermining these values.

I thank my colleagues for indulging me here today.

I will close by borrowing the words of President Lincoln, who knew more about healthy enmity and preserving our founding values than any other American who has ever lived.

His words from his first inaugural were a prayer in his time and are now no less in ours.

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of our affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.




SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Mr. President, colleagues, we regret to hear that our friend from Arizona will conclude his Senate service at the end of this six-year term.

And I'd like to say, Mr. President, on behalf of myself and I think many of my colleagues, we have just witnessed a speech from a very fine man, a man who clearly brings high principles to the office every day and does what he believes is in the best interests of Arizona and the country.

I'm grateful that the senator from Arizona will be here for another year-and-a-half. We have big things to try to accomplish for the American people.

But, from my perspective, the senator from Arizona has always been a great team player, always trying to get a constructive outcome, no matter what the issue before us.

So, I thank the senator from Arizona for his service, which will continue, thankfully, for another year-and-a-half, and for the opportunity to listen to his remarks today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The senator from Arizona.

MCCAIN: Mr. President, it's very hard for me to add to the eloquence of my friend, and my dear friend, from Arizona.


But I do want to say that it's been one of the great honors of my life to have the opportunity to serve with a man of integrity, of honor, decency, and commitment to not only Arizona, but the United States of America.

I have seen Jeff Flake stand up for what he believes in, knowing full well that there would be a political price to pay. I have seen him stand up for his family. I have seen him stand up for his forbearers, who were the early settlers of the state of Arizona.

In fact, there's a place called Snowflake, Arizona. And, obviously, the flake part comes from his direct predecessor.

It is the Flake family and families like them that came and worked and slaved and raised members and made Arizona what it is. And it has never had a more deserving son than Jeff Flake and his beautiful wife, Cheryl, and children.

So, I would just like to say, Jeff, I have known you now for a number of years. I know you have served Arizona and the country. And there's one thing that I'm absolutely sure of, in that you will continue that service, which is part of your family. It's part of your view of America. It's part of your willingness and desire to serve Arizona.

And one of the great privileges of my life has been to have the opportunity to know you and serve with you.

So, as we look, all of us, at some point at our time that we have spent here, whether it be short or whether it be long, we look back and we think about what we could have done, what we should have done, what we might have done, and the mistakes we made and the things we're proud of.

Well, when the Flake service to this country and this Senate is reviewed, it will be one of honor, of brilliance, and patriotism and love of country.

And I thank you. And God bless you and your family.

MCCONNELL: Mr. President?


MCCONNELL: I ask unanimous consent that, notwithstanding Rule 22, all post-cloture now be considered expired, all pending motions and amendments be withdrawn.

BALDWIN: Well, we have all just now witnessed an extraordinary moment in American politics, a sitting Republican senator saying he will not seek reelection, citing the Republican president's actions and behavior in a blistering speech on the Senate floor just now.

We heard from Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, calling President Trump's actions, a couple of the adjectives he used, reckless, and outrageous, and undignified, saying he refuses to be complicit.

Got a lot of voices. Let's just go round-robin. I want reaction, Gloria, starting with you.

BORGER: It was just a breathtaking cri de coeur from Jeff Flake.

Many of us suspected he wasn't going to run for reelection. He was the most endangered Republican in the Senate. But the lengths to which he went to explain why he's leaving, and not only critical of the president, I might add, but critical of the Senate, saying that we are all complicit in this if it we do not point it out and we do not say that this is not normal.

And he was saying, you know, we can never adjust to this kind of coarseness of our dialogue, the tone is set at the top, and we are complicit if we do.

And I, for one -- and I have covered politics for a long time. It's hard to remember a speech that is as honest and kind of laid bare the underlying issues of our politics of the time we're living through than a speech like this.

BALDWIN: Mark Preston?

PRESTON: You know, in this day and age, we live in the moment. We live within the seconds.

Sometimes, I think we just have to take a pause and just really take in what we just saw.

Brooke, you called it extraordinary. I would call it historic.

This is the type of speech I think, tomorrow, should be shown, should be listened to by every high school civics class, politics class, history class.

And the reason being is that we're at a moment in time right now where there's so much divisiveness in the country, there's so much divisiveness amongst our own selves, there's so much divisiveness within each political party, that something has to break.

Jeff Flake just said --