McCain, Flake don’t have to pull punches against Trump

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - DAN NOWICKI

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.”

Long-run­ning feuds

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.

Key votes

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.

Tax re­form

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.”

Un­fin­ished busi­ness

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.

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