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Flake rankles fellow Republicans with Trump takedowns

Jeff Flake’s Republican colleagues are getting tired of the retiring senator’s takedowns of President Donald Trump.

In his latest excoriation of his longtime sparring partner, the Arizona Republican took to the Senate floor on Wednesday and accused the president of “despotic” treatment of the media, compared Trump’s rhetoric to Joseph Stalin’s and asserted that Trump seemed to have “inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language.”

The harsh words triggered a backlash of their own, as Republican senators responded, in so many words: Enough’s enough.

“I don’t think that sort of speech is helpful,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who could face a Trump-inspired primary challenger later this year. “I disagree with those quotes and I don’t know why it’s helpful. … I don’t see any need to further stir that pot.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) agreed: “He’s certainly crossed the rubicon with Trump. Strife is not productive.”

Flake has made his feelings amply known about the Republican commander in chief, writing a book criticizing his party for empowering Trump’s rise and refusing to endorse him as the nominee in 2016. So Republicans say that the ongoing intraparty sniping is only further damaging the GOP heading into a brutal midterm election season as a redux of past battles.

“He hates him. He doesn’t like the president,” seethed Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “I can’t imagine anyone questioning that. As it gets closer to the end of his time here, I think he’s going to accelerate his wrath against the president.”

Asked whether he would ever rebut Flake on the Senate floor, Inhofe scoffed: “That would probably have the reverse effect and embolden him.”

The long-running fight between Flake and Trump carries both political and policy implications: Flake is part of a bipartisan group of senators trying to negotiate a deal to protect some young immigrants, a plan that Trump opposes, for now. And Flake’s words are reverberating across the Arizona primary race to replace him. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward immediately called on everyone in the race to condemn Flake’s “disturbing speech.”

Flake said afterward he didn’t expect Republicans to come rushing to his position, and openly admitted that he was able to confront Trump so directly only because he is not running for reelection. But the first-term senator said no GOP senators had tried to dissuade him from giving the speech, even as he faced questions from reporters about whether he thought Trump was a “despot” and had to explain days before he gave his speech that he was not, in fact, actually comparing Trump to Stalin.

“‘The enemy of the people’ is a loaded phrase, and an American president shouldn’t use it,” Flake said. “Stalin was a killer, therefore an American president shouldn’t use those phrases.”

Even Flake’s explanations of why he linked Trump with the words of dictators and autocrats weren’t enough for some of his GOP colleagues, who said the Arizona Republican was going too far in denouncing a president of his own party on the Senate floor.

“That’s a little bit of hyperbole,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “Look, we should always be mindful, because we don’t want to have a chilling effect on what remains of the legitimate press corps. A senator’s words matter. So people, maybe, are going to have a more heightened concern than they should.”

Though Flake is the rare instance of a Republican willing to challenge Trump, he’s clearly not alone among those in his party pondering the state of the press in the Trump era. Senators said that the line between news and opinion had become too blurred, and they disagreed with blanket attacks on reporters.

What Flake said, they will not: That Trump has taken media criticisms too far. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that Trump had not been too aggressive “up until now, that I know of.”

“I don’t believe in attacking the media. Unless they’re wrong on something,” Hatch said. “I just don’t think that’s our job.”

And though Flake made a bigger public splash by focusing his speech and media appearances on Trump, Republicans said the senator concentrated too much on a political rival and too little on the bigger picture that shows Americans trust the media less than ever. He could have mentioned President Barack Obama’s attitude toward conservative media, said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

“I agree with Sen. Flake on the importance of protecting the importance of the First Amendment,” Daines said. “Sen. Flake talks about the importance of trust. That cuts two ways. When we had President Obama, he said people who watch Fox News are on another planet.”

Minutes after delivering his latest scathing rebuke of the president, Flake said he hoped fellow Republicans would come around to his position, and Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) did in an op-ed defending the news media. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a number of other Republicans didn’t even listen to Flake.

Even Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), also a retiring Trump critic, seemed unenthused about rejoining the fray after calling the White House an “adult daycare” last year and tussling with Trump repeatedly.

“I don’t know what else I could possibly say that could be edifying to anyone,” Corker said.

Instead, the loudest praise came from Democrats like Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who called Flake’s speech “genuine” and “critical” for the Senate given Trump’s plans to give “fake news awards.” In fact, Flake said he’d been thinking for a long time about giving a speech about Trump’s antagonism toward the press, and Trump’s plans to dish out the awards on Wednesday accelerated them.

“I’ve been thinking about it for quite awhile,” Flake said. “Because last year was not a good year for truth. So if we don’t have shared truths as a country, then we are in trouble.”

By the end of the Wednesday, Trump had yet to respond to Flake —or to hand out his awards.

Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.

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