What to Make of Jeff Flake's Retirement, and His Fiery Anti-Trump Speech

The "norms and values that keep America strong" have been "undermined" by the Trump presidency, the GOP senator said Tuesday

Sen. Jeff Flake speaks on the Senate floor Tuesday, discussing his decision to not seek re-election in 2018. Credit: Senate TV/AP

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona announced Tuesday that he will not seek reelection next year, delivering a blistering floor speech in which he described President Trump as "dangerous" to democracy.

Flake's condemnation of Trump's Washington was full-throated: "Politics can make us silent when we should speak," he said, "and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit."

Never mentioning Trump by name, Flake put the president's temperament and Twitter habits squarely in his sights. The senator said he regretted the "indecency of our discourse," the "coarseness of our leadership" and the "compromise of our moral authority." And Flake argued that the "norms and values that keep America strong" have been "undermined," while the "alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters."

Flake decried those who would normalize Trump: "We must never regard as ‘normal' the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals," he 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."

Flake has now joined ranks with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a second traditional Republican who has broken starkly with President Trump – and will not seek reelection in the party that elected him. Tuesday morning, in the hours before Flake's announcement, Corker and Trump made headlines with a beef befitting a couple of battle rappers: The president called "lightweight Senator Bob Corker" the "incompetent head of the Foreign Relations Committee" adding, "People like liddle' Bob Corker have set the U.S. way back." For his part, Corker called the president "utterly untruthful" and accused him of "debasing" the United States.

It's fair to question just how seriously we should take Flake's rhetorical break-up with President Trump. Flake, you may recall, wrote a book powerfully condemning Trumpism, but that did not translate into political opposition: The senator has voted with the president more than 90 percent of the time. What's different as of Tuesday is that Flake will never again face a Republican primary electorate. He is now a free agent. The potential political ramifications are striking. He immediately becomes another loose cannon in a Senate that is nominally controlled by the GOP but looks increasingly balkanized and incapable of governing.

In addition to Flake and Corker, the Senate's nothing-to-lose caucus also includes Sen. John McCain, whose cancer diagnosis has reignited a long-dormant maverick flame, leading him to speak out in no uncertain terms against Trumpism. Combine this trio with the GOP's perpetual wild cards – moderate Susan Collins of Maine and libertarian Rand Paul of Kentucky – and it's unclear whether the Senate has a firm 50 votes required to advance the president's agenda, or anyone else's. The effort to repeal and replace Obamacare is already dead – now, Trump's tax cut looks increasingly like it's on life support.