Best friends split over Trump

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Dana Mil­bank

— Jeff Flake and Mike Pence were the best of friends.

Both men ran con­ser­va­tive free-mar­ket think tanks be­fore get­ting into pol­i­tics, and both were elected to the House in the Repub­li­can class of 2000. Both were af­fa­ble young law­mak­ers, happy war­riors in­spired by Ron­ald Rea­gan. Cov­er­ing Congress, I came to know and ad­mire both of them. Pence in 2012 went home to In­di­ana as gov­er­nor. Flake won elec­tion to the Se­nate the same year.

“He was my clos­est friend dur­ing my time in the House, and I still see him when­ever he comes to D.C.,” Flake told me this week. “I think a lot of Mike.”

But in re­cent weeks, the two friends made very dif­fer­ent choices. Flake be­came, ar­guably, the most out­spo­ken critic of GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump among elected Repub­li­cans. And Pence agreed to be Trump’s run­ning mate.

The two met in Phoenix on Tues­day night. Pence had come to speak at a rally and hold a fundraiser for the Repub­li­can ticket. Flake de­clined to at­tend ei­ther. The two men and their wives met pri­vately, avoid­ing pol­i­tics. “It was al­most all fam­ily and mem­o­ries,” Flake told me Wed­nes­day.

It’s be­com­ing clear that Flake made the bet­ter choice. The Trump cam­paign seems to be im­plod­ing — and is likely to take down Pence and other Repub­li­cans who saluted Trump. The at­tack on Gold Star par­ents. The botched state­ment about Ukraine. The re­fusal to sup­port party lead­ers such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain. Trump’s re­ported non­cha­lance about us­ing nu­clear weapons. His reck­less re­marks about the stock mar­ket and a “rigged” elec­tion.

The Repub­li­cans be­lat­edly head­ing for the ex­its vin­di­cate Flake’s long and lonely stand against Trump. The se­na­tor has no in­ter­est in gloat­ing, but he wel­comes the com­pany.

“I would have thought that it would have oc­curred ear­lier,” he said. “It’s just the accumulation of it, and at some point peo­ple say ‘That’s enough.’ ... In con­ver­sa­tions with col­leagues and then just see­ing the speed and force­ful­ness of the state­ments that have come out, I sense there’s a bit of change.”

For all the omi­nous po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments, it’s worth paus­ing to re­mem­ber that there are still good and coura­geous lead­ers — none more so in re­cent weeks than the self-ef­fac­ing Mor­mon from Ari­zona. “Some­body’s got to push back, and that’s what I’m do­ing,” Flake said. “I’m not in­ter­ested

WASH­ING­TON

in be­ing an apol­o­gist.”

Ear­lier this month, Flake met Trump at a Se­nate Repub­li­can cau­cus lunch. “You’ve been very critical of me,” Trump said.

“Yes, I have,” Flake replied, launch­ing into fresh crit­i­cism of Trump’s state­ments.

Trump threat­ened to work against Flake in Novem­ber. Flake in­formed Trump that he isn’t up for re-elec­tion un­til 2018.

Flake re­fused to at­tend the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion, say­ing, “I’ve got to mow my lawn.” Dur­ing the con­ven­tion, he took to Twit­ter to ob­ject to the Repub­li­cans’ “lock her up” at­tack on Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton.

When Trump pro­posed his ban on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the coun­try, Flake vis­ited a mosque to high­light the con­tri­bu­tions of Mus­lim Amer­i­cans. Flake hailed McCain’s state­ment say­ing that Trump doesn’t have an “un­fet­tered li­cense to de­fame those who are the best among us.”

Flake told me he gives a “pass” to McCain, Ryan and Pence for sup­port­ing Trump, but he ac­knowl­edged be­ing sur­prised that more didn’t join him sooner. His out­spo­ken­ness has hurt him with donors and con­stituents. “If you’re look­ing at re-elec­tion, there’s a clearer path not do­ing what I’m do­ing,” he said.

Flake’s an­swer to his crit­ics: Trump can’t win, and he could cause Repub­li­cans to lose the Se­nate, thereby of­fer­ing no re­sis­tance to lib­eral Supreme Court nom­i­nees. But Flake’s po­si­tion is less a po­lit­i­cal one than a prin­ci­pled one. He said there’s “no ex­cuse” for Trump call­ing an In­di­ana-born judge “Mex­i­can,” and he said “it’s a stake in the heart” to see Repub­li­cans turn against im­mi­gra­tion.

Flake thinks Repub­li­cans’ “over­promis­ing” — for ex­am­ple, that they could re­peal Oba­macare — con­trib­uted to Trump’s rise, and he’s not op­ti­mistic that Trump’s de­feat would fix things. “We’re in­evitably go­ing to have an­other au­topsy,” he said, and af­ter again re­solv­ing to be more tol­er­ant, “some new pop­ulist will rise up, and there we are again.”

Pence, who has had prag­matic ten­den­cies as gov­er­nor, prob­a­bly would have agreed with Flake, and per­haps he still does. Flake spec­u­lates that his friend thought “he could in­flu­ence Trump” to take a more sen­si­ble course. “I’ve got to think that that was his cal­cu­la­tion.”

But time is run­ning out, and Pence’s im­print is yet to be seen. “There’s lit­tle ev­i­dence,” Flake said, “that he’s rubbed off on him.”

Dana Mil­bank is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at danamil­bank@ wash­post.com.

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