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Fighting Donald Trump Cost Jeff Flake His Job. But He’s Not Going Quietly

16 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

‘You wanna see something cool?’

Senator Jeff Flake grins. “You guys are gonna love this.” He disappears into his clay-roofed garage in suburban Phoenix and returns wielding a pneumatic grapefruit gun, a three-foot-long contraption made of PVC pipe. Never mind that the 54-year-old Arizona Republican is in the throes of a minor medical emergency: minutes earlier on this November Friday, he’d been whacking through the desert shrubbery behind his house when he nicked his eyelid on a palm frond, causing it to bleed profusely. Now Flake’s 17-year-old son Dallin picks up a grapefruit from under the tree near their pool and loads it into the pipe, which is aimed skyward. With a blast that echoes across the neighborhood, the doomed fruit sails out of their backyard into parts unknown.

This is Jeff Flake in autumn: bloodied, liberated and feeling a bit mischievous. In a party whose elected officials vent privately about the tweets and tempests from the White House while toeing the line in public, Flake has been President Trump’s toughest critic. During the 2016 campaign, he was an outspoken opponent of Trump’s views on trade and immigration and his racially charged attacks on a Mexican-American judge. In August, he published a manifesto, Conscience of a Conservative, excoriating Trump and bemoaning the GOP’s evolution from a party founded on the ideals of small government, individual liberty and strong moral values to the far-right populism that has dominated in the Trump era. “It just wasn’t in me to agree with these simplistic policy prescriptions–protectionism, the Muslim ban,” Flake says. “Some of that is just the antithesis of what conservatives ought to be.”

His refusal to go along cost Flake his political career. As he lambasted his party’s President over the course of 2017, Flake’s favorability rating plunged, hitting just 22% in August, according to a poll by JMC Analytics. Facing a tough road to re-election next year, Flake took to the floor of the Senate on Oct. 24 and announced that he would not seek a second term. “There’s just not a path for a Republican like me in a party like this,” he says.

But Flake is not going quietly. His 17-minute Senate speech–written, like the book, without the help of aides, he says–was a searing indictment of the President that marked the beginning of a new phase in his truth-telling tour. Over 10 hours of conversation with TIME, in venues from his Senate office on Capitol Hill to his doctor’s office in Mesa, Flake sounded off on Republican figures like Trump (“I even defended him when he called Namibia ‘Nambia,'” he marvels) and Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore (“a bit of a nutcase”). He said at a town hall in Mesa on Nov. 17 that if the GOP becomes the party of Moore and Trump, “we are toast.” What other incumbents may think he’s now at liberty to say out loud. “I’m unchained from the necessities of politics for the next 14 months.”

It’s a rare spectacle in Washington for a sitting Senator to go to war with his own party. And the GOP’s slender margin in the upper chamber means the stakes in this feud are high. Until the end of his term, Flake holds significant control over the Republican agenda. He says he plans to fight for a legislative solution to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Obama-era policy that shields some undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from deportation. He’s pushing Congress to pass a law authorizing the use of military force against groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, possibly reining in Trump’s military powers. And as the GOP fought to pass a tax-cut package on which the party’s 2018 hopes may hinge, Flake vowed to oppose the bill if it continued to contain “gimmicks” that he said would raise the nation’s 10-year deficit beyond the permitted $1.5 trillion. On Nov. 14, he privately met with three other Republican Senators, including James Lankford of Oklahoma, convening a coalition of deficit hawks with the power to tank the bill. “We can do tax reform in ways that will grow the economy, but we can’t just ignore the debt and deficit,” he says of the bill, which moved closer to passage on Nov. 28 when a Senate committee approved it in a party-line vote.

All of this puts Flake in an unusual position: he’s a lame duck who nevertheless will be one of the party’s most pivotal figures for the next year–and perhaps beyond. He says he hasn’t ruled out challenging Trump in a 2020 presidential primary. “If you want to see the end of Jeff’s time in office, you should look at the beginning,” Lankford says, referring to Flake’s days as a lonely dissenter on spending issues in the House. “I know he’s going to engage on those issues–what can he do to fix it?”

When it’s clear that Flake’s bleeding eye requires stitches, he and his wife Cheryl climb into an army-green World War II–era convertible jeep. Flake bought it two years ago from Nevada Senator Dean Heller, a hunting buddy. “I’d always wanted a jeep like this,” Flake says. As the roar of the engine tears into the arid Arizona morning, Flake talks politics with the ease of a man who feels vindicated.

A day earlier, Flake had been at a Senate lunch when his colleague Susan Collins of Maine showed him an alert on her phone announcing the first allegations against Moore. Long before those surfaced, however, Flake had denounced Moore, who has likened homosexuality to bestiality and said Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress. Back in Arizona, he was spending part of his weekend calling GOP colleagues to urge them to do the same. “In the early ’90s, when David Duke was on the ballot, you had Republican Senators travel to Louisiana to campaign for his Democratic opponent. Not so long ago!” Flake recalls. “That was country over party. I wonder if you’ll see the same thing in Alabama. I hope we do.”

Flake’s independent spirit can be traced to his childhood on the desert mesas of the Southwest. He grew up in the town of Snowflake, Ariz., some three hours from Phoenix. The drive there runs through barren gorges and pine-lined mountains, past signs with pioneer-town names like Doubtful Canyon and Show Low. Snowflake is a heavily Mormon town of about 5,700 people, and nearly half of them seem to be related to Flake. The town is named in part for Flake’s great-great-grandfather, a Mormon sent by Brigham Young in the late 19th century to help settle the Arizona territory.

Flake’s 80-year-old mother Nerita still lives in a two-story home overlooking the family’s cattle ranch, where the future Senator and his 10 siblings spent mornings tending the land. (When Flake was 5, he lost the tip of his right index finger to the blade of a swather.) “Jeff was always more sedate, more quiet,” Nerita says while standing in her kitchen brushing butter over fresh-baked rolls. “I finally decided still waters run deep.”

The Flakes were active in local politics. On Monday nights, reserved by Mormons for “family home evenings,” they listened to audiotapes on the Constitution and patriotism. Flake was not a studious child–“School was the context in which sports were played,” he says–and he marched to the beat of his own drum, sometimes at speed. By Nerita’s account, he’d run the two miles to school alongside the bus in the dead of winter. He went to Brigham Young University, taking the traditional two-year leave for service, and completed his mission in South Africa. The experience was indelible: today, Flake speaks Afrikaans and chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy; his third son is doing his own mission work in Namibia.

As Flake tells it, he fell into politics almost by accident. After graduating from BYU, he landed an internship in the Washington office of Senator Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat. The affiliation would haunt Flake in his early elections. “I was pretty naive,” he recalls. “I just thought, Hey, he’s doing foreign policy stuff that [Senator John] McCain isn’t. I want to help, and I’m a Republican, but it can’t matter that much. Today you’d never, ever think about that.”

Flake’s real ideological awakening came when he moved back to Arizona to run the Goldwater Institute, the conservative think tank named for the former Arizona Senator and onetime Republican presidential candidate. (Flake’s new book borrows its title from Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto.) He began studying economists like Friedrich Hayek and Vernon Smith and grew enthralled by the small-government conservatism of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and National Review’s William F. Buckley. Through his work at the think tank, Flake found himself on Buckley’s radar. In the late 1990s, Buckley took him on an overnight sailing trip across the Long Island Sound. At the end of the trip, Flake recalls, Buckley insisted that they go skinny-dipping. “I left that out of my book, because I figured no one wants to picture William F. Buckley naked,” Flake says. Flake says that when he first ran for the House of Representatives, in 2000, Buckley, who rarely gave to campaigns, sent him a $250 check.

Flake served in the House for 12 years but says he never felt at home in Washington. He avoids the steak-and-martini dinners many colleagues favor (as a Mormon, he doesn’t drink) and sleeps in his office when he’s in town. “I’m cheap, but if I were a billionaire, I’d do it anyway,” he says. “It’s just so easy.” He made a name for himself as a gadfly. In an age of pork-barrel politics, Flake was one of the first Republicans in the early 2000s to oppose earmarks, which he saw as antithetical to conservatism. The position later came into vogue during the Tea Party movement, but it did not make him popular at the time. “The appropriators detested me,” Flake says. Still, putting principle before party earned a grudging admiration from both parties. “I saw a lot of people very frustrated with him over his fight against earmarks,” says former Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican. “But eventually? Jeff Flake won that argument. He’s always wanted to earn his stripes by calling balls and strikes no matter who’s throwing the pitch.” Says Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who worked with Flake to push a bipartisan immigration reform bill through the Senate in 2013: “He’s a man of tremendous integrity. I think he’s respected in a very strong way on both sides of the aisle.”

The senator and his son Dallin play with a homemade grapefruit cannon in the family's Arizona backyard.Michael Friberg for TIME -

Flake drifted even further from his party during the President Obama years. He was one of only seven House Republicans to vote to censure GOP Representative Joe Wilson for shouting “You lie!” at Obama during the President’s address to a joint session of Congress in 2009. After reaching the Senate in 2012, Flake took heat for voting to confirm Loretta Lynch as Attorney General, which he saw as a no-brainer under the chamber’s traditions of deference to presidential preference. “I think he was the one Senator that stuck to his principles even when it pushed him to the outside,” says entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who in recent years has befriended Flake. The battles with the White House, Cuban adds, are a tribute to Flake’s unwillingness to bend on matters of principle. “President Trump uses compliments as a means to influence those he thinks he can influence,” Cuban says, “and insults for those he knows he can’t.”

Flake acknowledges that his clashes with Trump have been damaging. A poll conducted in September showed that he had only a 25% approval rating among Republican primary voters in Arizona. The same survey suggested he was running well behind primary challenger Kelli Ward, a pro-Trump candidate who is backed by former White House strategist Stephen Bannon and has said McCain is “directly responsible for the rise of ISIS.” It was on a Saturday afternoon at the end of September when Flake began to consider not seeking another term. He’d been shopping at Home Depot when his campaign team called him with results from their latest poll. “We’re having a hard time seeing a path forward,” a staffer told him as he sat in his truck in the parking lot. “Unless you’re willing to embrace the President and hope he embraces you back.”

Flake wasn’t. “There is a narrower and narrower path for a Republican like me, a traditional Republican, to win an election right now, particularly with the Trump factor,” Flake says. To a lot of voters, the feud with Trump was disqualifying on its face: “Because I wasn’t with the President, I simply wasn’t conservative.”

Flake says the destruction of American conservatism has been under way since long before Trump hit the political scene. “Go back to Newt Gingrich and the politics of personal destruction–the start of this intensely partisan atmosphere,” he says. “We couldn’t claim to be the party of limited government anymore. So we started arguing about flag burning and Terri Schiavo and engaging in these culture wars, and we got lost.” Yet Flake noticed the President’s appeal in Arizona as early as 2011, when Trump began touting the “ugly, ugly conspiracy theory” that Obama was not born in the U.S. “It’s a cultural fear that a lot of people have–the fear of losing their culture,” Flake says of that dog whistle. “I had hoped the fever would break by now, but it clearly hasn’t.”

Flake made the decision not to run on a weekend in mid-October and wrote his speech in Washington over the following two days. Cheryl flew into town and sat in the Senate gallery as her husband spoke. Trump had been on Capitol Hill that morning for lunch with Republican Senators, but Flake’s floor speech overshadowed the President’s meeting. He says he felt liberated as he left in the afternoon with Cheryl. That night both Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden called to thank him for his remarks.

The question now is whether he can make a difference as a lame duck. On Nov. 7, a dozen teenagers from a Jesuit school in Phoenix visited Flake’s Capitol Hill office to petition for the Dream Act. One of them, 17-year-old Nelson Martinez, was a beneficiary of DACA–the youngest of four children of Mexican immigrants who now run a painting company in Arizona. If Congress fails to pass a replacement before DACA expires in March, Martinez–who speaks little Spanish–could be deported to Mexico. “I tutor seventh-graders in math and physics. I’m on the student council. I play basketball and football,” Martinez told Flake. “I consider myself as American as anyone in this room.”

Flake swallowed and nodded. “I’m with you,” he said.

After getting his eyelid stitched up, Flake takes Cheryl and Dallin to lunch at a trendy fast-casual Italian place in an outdoor shopping center in Mesa. He finds himself in a comfort zone: several fellow diners approach Flake at his table, clasping the Senator’s hands and thanking him. “I’m such a groupie,” Sheri Carparelli, who runs a professional training center in Phoenix, tells him. “Just keep it up. We need you so much.”

So it goes for the Senator whom polls rank as one of the least popular leaders in the country. On a desk in his study is a folder of grateful letters he has received in the weeks since his Senate speech. “We follow American politics with great interest–and these days that interest is stronger than before because we feel fearful,” one note from Sweden reads. “Men like you, however, make us feel hopeful.”

Flake is bemused by this newfound popularity, at least among liberals and other Trump opponents. He makes it clear that his fight is often less about policy than about Trump’s divisive behavior. “I am a conservative,” he says. “My voting record is conservative. I voted to repeal and replace Obamacare 30 times before the President showed up.” In his book, Flake makes it clear that he opposed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy due to “profound policy disagreements.”

On the drive home from lunch, Flake’s phone buzzes. ‘Aha.’ He reads the notification out loud: “Exclusively on Sean Hannity radio today, we’ll talk to Judge Roy Moore.” As Flake turns the AM dial, Cheryl groans. “He is the most nauseating person in media,” she says. Flake listens in silence as Hannity begins to speak.

Flake knows his situation is not simple–that defying the party line on big votes like taxes could yield disastrous consequences for his fellow Republicans, particularly those who are up for re-election. “I don’t want to put my colleagues in tough positions,” he says. “That’s the toughest part about standing up. I feel a little uneasy about that.” But there is no going back. “I plan to be more vocal, and I plan to use the Senate floor,” he says simply. “Not just to give speeches on free trade or things I think are important but to give speeches on decorum, on the truth, and at least try to give hope. I want to let people know that some of us in office share their views, because there are a lot of people out there who feel like I do, who are despairing that both parties seem to be moving away from them.”

When his term expires, in January 2019, Flake will return to Arizona full time. He dodges a question about his plans, claiming he’s simply excited to be able to mow the lawn at his leisure again. But a comeback is not discounted. Flake deflects the idea that he’s eyeing a presidential bid in 2020 but says he hopes Trump faces a primary challenger: “Any Senator would be lying if they said they’d never thought of it. I’m not ruling it out, but it’s not part of some grand plan.”

For now, Flake says, he wants to retreat to the desert and wait for his party to come to its senses. “The fever has to cool for me to have a place in Republican politics,” he says. He expects that it will. “Anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy,” he says. “At some point, people will wake up and say, ‘We’ve got to have something more than this.'”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated Sen. Jeff Flake’s views on Hillary Clinton. In his recent book, Flake said he opposed her candidacy for president on policy grounds, contrasting that position with those who seemed to think Clinton was “one of the darkest figures in human history.” He did not describe her that way himself.

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