SALT LAKE CITY — Jeff Flake is no fan of impeachment.
But the Arizona Republican sees the latest controversy surrounding President Donald Trump as an opportunity for his former Senate colleagues to take the same risk he took when he became a leading critic of the president.
“My fellow Republicans, it is time to risk your careers in favor of your principles,” Flake wrote in The Washington Post on Monday. “Whether you believe the president deserves impeachment, you know he does not deserve reelection.”
Taking that stand cost Flake his seat. Facing certain defeat in a state that has embraced Trump, he opted not to run for reelection in 2018. He has stayed busy, landing a gig as a news commentator on CBS, hitting the speaking circuit and becoming a resident fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School Institute of Politics.
But he suggested in his column that he’s most relieved he has a clear conscience that he didn’t support someone “undeserving of the highest office that we have” in order to keep the job he really wanted — serving in the Senate. “Trust me when I say that you can go elsewhere for a job,” Flake wrote. “But you cannot go elsewhere for a soul.”
But impeachment is not the soul-saving sacrifice Flake recommends. In fact, he says the country is too divided to pursue that route, which he fears could also play to Trump’s strengths.
“My fellow Republicans, it is time to risk your careers in favor of your principles. Whether you believe the president deserves impeachment, you know he does not deserve reelection.” — Flake in The Washington Post
“He is the maestro of a brand of discord that benefits only him and ravages everything else. So although impeachment now seems inevitable, I fear it all the same,” he wrote.
Instead, he urges his colleagues to work against Trump winning reelection in 2020.
“If the House decides against filing articles of impeachment, or the Senate fails to convict, Senate Republicans will have to decide whether, given what we now know about the president’s actions and behavior, to support his reelection,” he wrote. “Obviously, the answer is no.”
Flake was not alone Monday in calling on Republicans to take a stand against the president. The New York Times published several op-eds in the past three days urging the GOP to boot their man out of office — either through impeachment or next year’s election.
The opinion pieces come in the wake of House Democrats launching a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump over a whistleblower’s complaint that the president asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July phone call to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of an energy company in Ukraine.
Republicans had been conspicuously quiet in responding to the whistleblower’s complaint until Sunday when a parade of Republicans erupted “into a surge of second-guessing” on the talk show circuit, The Associated Press reported.
They defended the president’s phone conversation and questioned the whistleblower’s motives and credibility.
Flake told BBC that he believes the president’s conduct “warrants impeachment,” but he prefers letting voters decide whether Trump should stay in office.
“I don’t want to see impeachment come,” he said. “But how in the world, my colleagues, any Republicans could say the president deserves reelection after all that we’ve seen, I just don’t know. I don’t understand.”
Last week, another Washington Post contributor offered an answer: reelection prospects. Michael Tesler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine, used Flake’s experience to illustrate why most Republicans are keeping quiet about their president’s latest troubles.
Tesler showed how the political fortunes of Flake and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., diverged after both men criticized Trump during the 2016 election. As Graham transformed into a defender of the president, his net approval rating (the percent approving minus the percent disapproving) soared from -19% in 2016 to +64% in 2018. Flake continued his criticism and saw his net approvals plummet from -19% to -49% in the same time frame.
Flake wouldn’t disagree with that assessment of what can happen when a Republican opposes Trump, who remains extremely popular among Republicans. “I am not oblivious to the consequences that might accompany that decision. In fact, I am living those consequences,” he wrote Monday.
In an interview with the Deseret News in July, Flake said the consequences for his party are more dire if Trump isn’t defeated. He described the Republican Party as “doomed long term” if Trump is reelected. But he also predicted Trump won’t win.
“You can drill down on the base, and it may work in an election here or there, but at some point you run out of angry people,” he said.
Flake’s column may have been preaching to a small choir of GOP senators some speculate support impeaching Trump. Last week, Flake boldly corrected Republican consultant Mike Murphy’s claim that 30 GOP senators would vote to impeach Trump.
“That’s not true,” Flake said during a Q&A at the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival, according to Fox News. “There would be at least 35.”
He didn’t name them. One of the few GOP members of Congress to express concern over allegations against Trump is Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. He said it would be “troubling in the extreme” if the allegations against the president were true.
Asked to comment on Flake’s op-ed, a Romney spokeswoman said he had nothing to add, but she offered a link to a New York Times story on Romney’s role as a “lonely voice of concern.”
In that story, national political correspondent Jonathan Martin wrote last week that this is a time when Romney “believes country should trump party” and quoted the senator:
“Each person should search their own heart and do what they think is right, which is just what I do.”