Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on Tuesday afternoon gave an impassioned speech from the Senate floor announcing his retirement and casting President Trump as a threat to the state of democracy.
“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” the Republican senator said. “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country—the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or 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 all been elected to serve.
He added as a plea: “None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal.”
The Arizona Republican has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration and, as a result, a frequent target of the president’s Twitter rants. Faced with the prospect of far-right Republican primary challengers in next year’s Senate race, and troubling polling finding him behind declared candidate Kelli Ward, Flake decided that he would exit the Senate.
In the 20-minute speech, without ever mentioning Trump’s name, Flake pondered Washington’s future and what his Senate colleagues could tell their grandchildren about their time serving during a Trump administration—at times, openly questioning whether Congress could be proud of its complicity in the coarsening of U.S. politics.
“It is often said that children are watching,” Flake said. “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?”
He cautioned against the notion that there would ever be a “pivot” to normalcy, given President Trump’s penchant for bitter personal feuds and wars of words; and warned against the expectation of any such swing to decency.
“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,” Flake said, referring both to his colleagues and the Trump administration. “We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that.”
Inside the chamber, it appeared that some senators were already aware of what Flake was going to say before he rose.
Sitting just two seats away from Flake were Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN), who have both tussled with the president on a number of issues and have criticized him in a similar manner. Corker will also retire at the end of his term in 2018.
They were joined by Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY), Rand Paul (R-KY), James Risch (R-ID), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Todd Young (R-IN). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) sat stone-faced, while McCain smiled at times and appeared to get emotional as he listened to his longtime Arizona colleague.
On the Democratic side, Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sat idly as Flake spoke.
Beyond his own criticisms of the current functioning of the federal government, Flake acknowledged that, in his eyes, there was no room for him in the Senate any longer.
“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican party—the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things,” Flake said, acknowledging his own vulnerability in next year’s election.
“It is also clear to me for the moment we have given in or given up on those core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment. To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess we have created are justified. But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”
At the conclusion of his speech, every senator on the floor gave Flake a standing ovation—except for Paul, who remained seated and took a sip of water as his colleagues clapped.
—Andrew Desiderio contributed reporting.