Sen. Jeff Flake was never shy about his distaste for Donald Trump’s politics. But one day after his dramatic retirement speech skewering the president, he told POLITICO that he’s not “vindictive” — suggesting he won’t simply be a knee-jerk vote against Trump’s agenda.
“I don’t know that it’s that different. I’m going to work on issues that I’m for,” the Arizona Republican said of his legislative approach going forward. “I’m not out [to be] vindictive.”
Few other GOP senators have been willing to publicly embrace the kind of pointed rhetoric and warnings from Flake and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) about the president’s temperament, fitness for office and handling of foreign policy amid serious diplomatic challenges abroad.
Yet the band of anti-Trump critics in the Senate is not actually planning to tank the broader GOP agenda anytime soon. And it’s far from certain that Trump’s legislative priorities — be it tax reform or a regulatory rollback— will be doomed despite the sustained Republican infighting.
“Bob Corker and Jeff Flake — I know them both and I know them well — are not going to vote against good ideas because they’re mad at the president,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Wednesday.
Other colleagues agreed.
“I don’t think Sen. Flake feels constrained by any political considerations in terms of expressing himself and making it clear what he stands for,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “I don’t really expect any difference in the pre-announcement Flake from the post-announcement Flake.”
The president’s critics have themselves scoffed at the notion they’ll simply reject Trump’s policies for the sake of opposing him, even with their deep aversion to how Trump has carried himself during the first nine months of his term.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another frequent adversary of the president who helped the GOP’s kill Obamacare repeal bill, recently told reporters it was a “dumb” suggestion that he would block Trump’s agenda because of personal disagreements.
Democrats also do not expect the GOP’s Trump critics to morph into bleeding heart liberals.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a close friend of Flake, didn’t see any reason why Flake, a libertarian-leaning fiscal conservative, will change even after being liberated from campaigning for a second term. And he defended Flake and Corker from criticism on the left that their anti-Trump rhetoric is backed up with no actions.
“Jeff Flake is not a Democrat. Bob Corker is not a Democrat. There are issues on which not only do we disagree, but we disagree strongly,” Kaine said. “Bob and Jeff are the same in this way: If you can convince them that something is good on the merits, they will stick with you no matter what their leadership says, no matter what the polls say.”
Senate Republicans have largely stuck together on key pieces of the GOP agenda this year, including going nuclear to get Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court and killing more than a dozen Obama-era regulations — the latest occurring Tuesday night to repeal a rule loathed by the banking industry.
Even Trump’s critics go out of their way to point to areas in which they want to work with the White House. Flake noted that he is trying to piece together a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that both Trump and Democrats can support.
Still, Flake also made it clear that he intends to conduct aggressive oversight of the administration’s foreign policy actions. He raised concerns in an interview about Trump undercutting his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and called for a diplomatic solution to the escalating standoff with North Korea “before there’s a military option.”
“I think in terms of obviously the Iran negotiation and what’s gonna come out of that with the Iran deal, that’s something that we’re gonna be very carefully looking at,” he said. “It doesn’t help for the president to blame Bob Corker for the Iran deal, when he was just trying to give us any involvement.”
The Arizona Republican also cited a new authorization of the use of military force as another key foreign policy avenue he wants to pursue in his final 14 months in office, particularly in light of the deaths of four members of the U.S. Special Forces unit in Niger.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Corker, will ramp up their oversight of the administration and the president’s powers starting next Monday with an AUMF hearing with Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. Corker said the panel will examine the War Powers Act, a law meant to keep in check the president’s authority on armed conflicts abroad.
“The committee is going to be very active and, I think, will be very informative to the American people and to the rest of the Senate about what powers the president has, shouldn’t have, whatever,” Corker said.
On whether other GOP senators, particularly on the committee, would be eager for that kind of aggressive oversight, Flake responded: “I think so. I do.”
However, other key members have been careful to distance themselves from Corker and Flake’s criticisms.
“I deal with foreign leaders all the time. They have some angst over some things, and other things they feel pretty good about,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who is in line to chair the Foreign Relations Committee after Corker retires. Of the retiring senators’ criticisms, Risch added: “That’s their view, not my view.”
Aaron Lorenzo contributed to this report.
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