McCain, Flake don’t have to pull punches against Trump
In an unprecedented moment in Arizona history, John McCain and Jeff Flake are seemingly freed from re-election pressures.
The Republican senators have sometimes been at odds with President Donald Trump over his policies and performance. But now, unfettered by the need to fundraise or fend off right-wing primary challengers, McCain and Flake have no reason to pull any punches.
“Well, I haven’t exactly been quiet, but I do intend to speak out,” Flake told Arizona media on Wednesday, a day after a Senate-floor speech in which he criticized Trump and announced he wouldn’t seek re-election in 2018. “I said during the speech (Tuesday) we can’t continue to be silent when we shouldn’t be. We
can’t normalize behavior and act as if this is a new normal. It can’t be a new normal.”
McCain, 81, who is battling a deadly form of brain cancer, was just reelected last year and is not expected to seek a seventh term in 2022, when he would be 86. But in the months since McCain revealed his medical diagnosis in July, he has been unsparing in his criticism of Trump and a worldview based on “spurious nationalism.”
Trump has repeatedly belittled and threatened Flake and McCain. But with Republicans holding a 2-vote majority, he can’t afford to alienate them entirely and still hope to move his agenda forward.
McCain, as chairman of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee, has even more power, which he recently displayed by threatening to block Defense Department nominations until his panel got answers on the recent ambush in Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead.
“They probably aren’t going to vote against Trump all the time because they’re Republicans,” said John J. “Jack” Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. “This is what they believe, and they’ll probably keep voting the way they have their whole careers. But on close votes, it’s fair to say that Trump can’t count on goodwill.”
The animosity between Trump and the Arizona senators had been building since soon after Trump announced his presidential run in 2015.
Both McCain and Flake criticized Trump’s referring to Mexicans as rapists and drug runners. Trump responded by mocking McCain’s Vietnam War record.
Flake refused to endorse or vote for Trump, while McCain eventually withdrew his support of Trump’s candidacy after a vulgar recording came to light.
The two continued to speak out against Trump from time to time.
Flake, 54, earlier this year published a book in which he criticized the Republican Party for embracing Trump, titled “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and A Return to Principle.” On Tuesday, he emotionally denounced the coarseness and incivility of Trump-style politics in the Senate-floor speech.
“If we’re going to solve the problems that we have, the big challenges that we face as a country, we’re going to have to come together, Republicans and Democrats,” Flake added. “You can’t do that when you refer to people on the other side of the aisle as ‘clowns’ or ‘losers.’ ”
In a fiery July floor speech, McCain made a similar case for the Senate to return to regular order and its tradition of bipartisan cooperation on major issues such as health care and immigration.
The McCain-Flake duo still has more than a year to work together.
“Senator McCain and Senator Flake will each spend their remaining time in the U.S. Senate focusing on the biggest issues facing Arizona and our nation, including immigration reform,” predicted Lorna Romero, a former McCain campaign aide who is now a Phoenix political consultant. “They are both known as ‘mavericks,’ which we have witnessed throughout their political careers, and the next 14 months will be no different.”
McCain and Flake remain two important votes in the Senate GOP conference and have the power to disrupt Trump’s agenda, should they choose to do so; Republicans hold the majority in the 100member chamber with just a 52-48 advantage, meaning GOP leaders can’t afford more than two defections on any vote.
But McCain also recently scolded a Fox News reporter who suggested that he would not do anything to help Trump, given their public feud.
“You mean that I am somehow going to behave in a way that I’m going to block everything because of some personal disagreement? That’s a dumb question,” McCain said.
McCain noted that he is still an elected senator from Arizona.
McCain in late July joined Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and all Democrats and to cast the deciding vote that sunk a Senate GOP attempt to roll back the Affordable Care Act. His opposition subsequently helped stop a second anti-“Obamacare” effort from ever reaching a floor vote.
On Trump’s next big priority — tax reform — neither McCain nor Flake can be taken for granted as a “yes” vote even though both are favorably inclined toward the idea. They have concerns about its impact on the deficit and want to see the details
The tax-cut package could increase the national deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
“A traditional Republican certainly has no shortage of reasons for voting against this measure,” Pitney said.
After eviscerating Flake with a series of insulting comments on Wednesday, Trump seemed to realize that he might need his vote on tax reform, or “tax cuts” as the president calls it.
“I do think this: I wish him well,” Trump told reporters. “I really believe he’s going to do the right thing for the country. He’s going to vote for tax cuts because we desperately need tax cuts to put our people back to work. We need tax cuts also to be able to compete with other countries.”
Flake has indicated he won’t necessarily support “tax cuts” at any cost, and intends to insist on reforms such as closing tax loopholes. Like McCain, he is supportive of tax reform but also mindful of the impact on the deficit.
“We’ve got to pass a tax-reform bill. Not just a tax-cut bill, we’ve got to do a tax-reform bill,” Flake said.
Citing concerns about the treasury and the need to properly fund defense, McCain voted against then-President George W. Bush’s signature tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, earning the long-term enmity of many fiscally minded Republicans. However, he later supported extending the Bush tax cuts in 2006.
McCain told The Arizona Republic on Friday that this year’s tax package “changes from day to day,” making it difficult for him to come to any conclusions about it.
“This thing is not settled. It’s so fluid,” McCain said. “But I do think that we ought to have a reduction in the corporate tax rate and I think there are other things we can do. But it’s not accident that the last time that we did true tax reform was in 1986.”
Flake has identified at least a couple of other priorities for his final 14 months in the Senate. They include an updated Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, for the war against Islamic State terrorists. He also wants a legislative solution for young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and previously shielded from deportation by former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump has ended.
“We need to protect the DACA kids,” Flake said.
For his part, McCain suggested his relationship with Trump and his administration is not beyond repair.
McCain told The Republic on Friday he is moving forward with the Pentagon nominations because of an adequate briefing on the Oct. 4 Niger incident and arrangements for better communication with the Armed Services Committee. He reiterated that he gets along well with Defense Secretary James Mattis, White House chief of staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
“I think they’re doing a good job and I’m proud to have them as friends, but we had to make them realize, as we’ve done before, that we are not a unicameral government and we have our responsibilities, and we’ll carry them out,” McCain said.
McCain also disclosed that he got a call from Trump after the president met with Republican senators Tuesday at the Senate GOP policy lunch.
“He said, ‘I saw you there, I saw you smiling when I said I was going to spend more money on defense, and we’ll work together,’ ” McCain recalled. “My answer was, ‘I thank you for the call, and looking forward to working together.’ ”
The outreach indicates Trump may have gotten over the well-received speech McCain gave earlier this month while accepting the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal. In his remarks, McCain ripped the “halfbaked, spurious nationalism” that seemed to be inspiring a U.S. retreat from the world stage and a position of international leadership.
On Friday, McCain clarified that he wasn’t specifically talking about Trump or Steve Bannon, Trump’s nationalist former White House strategist, but was sounding a warning about the dark public mood.
“What I was trying to say was, not Trump, not Bannon, not any individual, but what’s going on now is a return to the isolationism of the 1930s,” McCain said. “It isn’t necessarily Trump, it isn’t necessarily Bannon . ... I was trying to talk about the atmosphere. You know the old line about repeating the lessons of history. In my mind, we are repeating the lessons of history.”
McCain praised the retiring Flake as “a wonderful partner in the United States Senate.” However, he couldn’t say if Flake’s example would inspire other Senate Republicans to take a stand against Trump’s tone and behavior.
“That’s a personal decision that people make,” McCain said. “I still think that Jeff Flake is one of the most honest persons I have ever known. I admire him. I respect him. I’m not exactly sure I would have done what he did. But I will always appreciate his incredible service and his family and his heritage.”
(From left) Cheryl Flake, U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain and Cindy McCain in 2016.