Sen. Flake provides a Frank Capra moment after Trump’s attack on Sessions

I feel like I witnessed, quite by accident, a Frank Capra moment, right out of the Jimmy Stewart classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” yesterday, (and that I was virtually the only one who witnessed it.)

I turned on my TV, which happened to be on C-Span-2, which shows the floor of the Senate whenever the Senate is in session. Only two senators were present. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconisn, who was presiding, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who was at the podium to speak. Before I could change the channel, I heard Flake say:

In the annals of the “presidents say the darndest things,” last week’s Twitter outburst will stand out, at least for me, because the president attacked the attorney general of the United States for simply doing the job that he swore an oath to do.

I DVR’d the rest of Flake’s statement, and transcribed it, and will offer it below. But first a little background.

Flake, a solid conservative who is finishing up an 18-year career in Congress (12 years in the House, one term in the Senate), committed political suicide in 2018 when, during the rise of Donald Trump to the Republican nomination, he published a book titled “Conscience of a Conservative.” (If you’re as old as me, you’re thinking ‘wasn’t that a Barry Goldwater book?’ Yes. Flake consciously borrowed the title from his Arizona predecessor, who was one of his role models.)

Flake’s version of “Conscience” slammed Donald Trump as neither a real conservative nor  characterologically fit to be president. His formerly bright future in Republican politics was soon destroyed.

This year, when his Senate term was up, Flake faced a primary challenger who was fully tweet-supported by Trump. Flake decided to retire. That, at least, freed him up to speak his mind as often as he liked, including his real feelings about Trump.

What I stumbled into on C-Span-2 was an example of him doing that. I don’t know how often he has done this, but it was pretty cool — even if it seemed to test the old brain teaser about whether, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it makes any sound.

Other than presiding officer Johnson, who had to be there, and a lot of clerks who were bustling around but not paying any attention to Flake, the retiring senator had the Senate chamber virtually to himself. But before I could change the channel I got hooked. To follow Flake’s soliloquy, you need to know about the tweet to which Flake referred in his opening remarks, above.

Two incumbent Republican members of the House, Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York, have been under investigation for various kinds of fraud. Sessions inherited the investigation from the Obama administration, the case developed, and the two Republicans are now charged with crimes.

Collins faces 13 counts of alleged securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements related to an alleged insider trading scheme. Hunter is charged with using campaign funds for personal use, wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations and conspiracy. Both have pleaded not guilty. And they are entitled to a presumption of innocence. But President Trump showed no interest in the validity of the charges.

In his tweets, Trump flayed Sessions for jeopardizing what might have been safe seats for the GOP if the incumbents hadn’t been under indictment. Here’s the tweet:

Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff……

In a second tweet, Trump said:

The Democrats, none of whom voted for Jeff Sessions, must love him now.

Trump generates so many of these brouhahas that I actually hadn’t noticed this one until I stumbled on Flake on C-Span. But, with hardly anyone listening or watching, Flake explained on the Senate floor the self-serving blindness of Trump’s approach to law enforcement, thus:

Of course, it wasn’t the first time the president has so diminished himself. But this particular slander was leveled at the attorney general for having the temerity to prosecute members of Congress who happen to also belong to the president’s political party.

That’s right. The president attacked Mr. Sessions, by name, for refusing to cover up allegations of Republican misconduct. The president’s concern was not for justice, but for the political fortunes of the accused, because their congressional seats might now be at risk of falling to Democrats.

In doing this, the president is projecting a vision onto the system of American justice that is both bizarre and, more important, destructive.

Of course the only truly shocking thing about this statement from the president is that given what all of us have become accustomed to during this presidency, or even worse, have become numb to, this twitter eruption was not at all surprising. This numb acceptance is an appalling statement on the very real threat to our democratic institutions, Mr. president.

At this point, it might be too late for tutorials to the American justice system. But it certainly bears repeating that in order for justice to truly be served, justice must be based in empirical truth, and must be absolutely carried out absolutely independent of politics. Period.

No president, any president, administers the justice system in America, any more than he or she decrees what is objective truth. In this country, justice and truth operate quite independent of the dictates of even the most powerful of offices.

The reasons for this point are obvious to most, but we know by now that this particular president seems to have a profound unease with both justice and truth, and so has been at unrelenting war with both, virtually since the moment he swore the oath.

Not because there is any deficiency in justice or truth that requires his intervention, mind you, but for other less noble reasons.

The president seems to think that the office confers on him the ability to decide who and what gets investigated in these United States and who and what does not. Weekly, it seems, this president has been threatening to “get involved’ in the functions of the Justice Department, sometimes intimidating, sometimes plainly threatening to corrupt the independence of justice in America.

He has overtly expressed a desire for his political opponents to be investigated. And almost two years into his presidency, he presides over boisterous rallies where the last election is relitigated. And chants of “lock her up” fill the halls. None of this is normal, or acceptable. But it is not mere recklessness.

It seems to be a deliberate program by which he intends to weaken the institution of American justice, threaten its independence and perhaps set the stage for some future assault on it: the firing of the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, and perhaps even the special counsel.

It has been said that the president deserves to have an attorney general of his choice, a top lawyer with whom he is compatible. This is true. The president’s appointment powers are clear, and all of his appointees serve at the pleasure of the president. But what no president deserves is a top lawyer who is simply there to do his bidding. The attorney general is not the president’s personal lawyer. And his job is not to protect the president from damaging facts, or to turn the power of American justice onto the president’s enemies.

Or to direct Justice Department investigations in any way that is either politically motivated or presupposes guilt or innocence, or favors any outcome whatsoever, other than that which is supported by the evidence and truth.

The attorney general’s job description, as tweeted by the president last week, bears scant resemblance to the attorney general’s job in a constitutional democracy.

And so I rise today because the framers gave us, the Article 1 branch of this government that they conceived, the responsibility to curb such reckless behavior. Thus far, I believe, that we’ve been all so incredulous at the daily excess — and ever hopeful, hopeful beyond any reason, that this president would at least begin to inhabit the office in a more responsible fashion – that we have been somewhat uncertain what to do.

First and foremost, we must speak out. We cannot be quiet when the moment requires us to stand up for the democratic norms under which this system functions and without which this system ceases to function.

The president has repeatedly and over time breached these norms. If we say nothing then we become accomplices in the destruction of these democratic norms. The United States Senate is not the place to come for deniability. We must do what we can to curb the destructive impulses of this White House.

We must encourage the administration of justice. That means voicing our support for Mr. Mueller and his team. We’ve passed bipartisan legislation out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, legislation to protect the special counsel. I call on the majority leader to bring this legislation to the Senate floor.

We must also say in no uncertain terms that to call this investigation a ‘witch hunt’ is wrong. To call Mr. Mueller’s [team] thugs is wrong. Relentlessly slandering the attorney general of the United States is wrong. It is a travesty, and it is unbecoming of the office of the presidency.

And I would say to the attorney general: Stand firm. You’ve spent your life in public service, in the service of your country.

At the risk of being presumptuous I would say that these days, right now, during this crucial period when we have a president who in a malign fashion is actively testing the limits of power in the administration of American justice and in the independence of American justice, while your determination to safeguard the independence of Justice Department at the time that you have been under assault by the president, has verged on heroic.

In your long career, you will render no more consequential service to your country: Stand firm, Attorney General Sessions.

I appeal to the leadership of this body to speak out. You don’t have to speak out at every twitter outburst. But when the president calls on the Department of Justice to act as an arm of the Republican Party, then the leaders of the Republican Party in this body need to stand and say that the president is out of bounds.

Mr. President, we all have our pulls to conscience. Most recently, for me, I hear the whisper so well described a few weeks ago. The whisper over my shoulder that says: “We are better than this. America is better than this.” [This is a clear reference to the feelings of the late John McCain about Trump’s conduct in office.]

In a time of rank tribalism, Mr. President, we need to remember that we are all Americans. That is our only tribe. It is to the rule of law and the ideals of our founding that we owe our allegiance. I yield the floor.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 09/13/2018 - 07:20 pm.

    “But what no president deserves is a top lawyer who is simply there to do his bidding.”

    Robert Kennedy withstanding.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/13/2018 - 08:21 pm.

    One point of the speech, even if to an empty floor, is that it is read into the Congressional Record and becomes publicly available.
    Not quite a silent tree.
    And of course people like you spread his word.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/14/2018 - 09:16 am.

    Slow clap.

    It’s easy enough to denounce Trump when you are a Republican on your way out the door. It would have been a different matter for him to stick to his principles and run for re-election. His primary opponent would have been forced to defend his unswerving loyalty, and to do so in fora where anyone asking him questions is not going to be drowned out by chants of “LOCK HER UP!!!” Give the voters of Arizona a legitimate choice.

  4. Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 09/14/2018 - 01:42 pm.

    I can see Senator Wellstone and Senator Franken walking up to shake his hand.

  5. Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 09/14/2018 - 02:22 pm.

    For all his public remonstrations about Trump’s shortcomings, how often has Senator Flake stood up where it counted — his votes on issues before the Senate? I believe that he has consistently voted in favor of the Party line in support of Trump. I’m sure that he will also vote to protect Trump by confirming Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/14/2018 - 02:46 pm.

      Senator Flake is addressing his complaint to Senator McConnell, the Majority Leader of his party and the Senate. That’s who is not permitting Congress either to protect the Mueller investigation by passing a bill to that effect, as Flake mentions, or otherwise to contain Trump. McConnell will not permit any opposition to Trump or his excesses.

      So Flake is going down in history as calling out, from within his own party, Mitch McConnell. So far, only Flake has put any words in public to the effect that–as history will show–Mitch McConnell has done as much damage to our country as any other politician in generations. McConnell is the agent and controller of “Congress won’t act!” inertia toward Trump.

      That’s new. That’s important.

      Let’s remember: Flake is alone among Republicans in Congress in speaking out at all against leadership. All he can do is put his views on the record.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 09/14/2018 - 04:15 pm.

        “Mitch McConnell has done as much damage to the liberal agenda as any other politician in generations.“


        The country is doing super, thankyouverymuch.

        • Submitted by Jim Roth on 09/14/2018 - 06:18 pm.

          So much “winning”… Let’s ignore those “losers”.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/16/2018 - 11:23 am.

          I assume that you’re rich (top 1% rich).
          Otherwise you’re living in a fools paradise.
          The tax cuts financed by a trillion dollar deficit are going to catch up with the economy and you’ll have to pay your debts.

        • Submitted by Mike Davidson on 09/16/2018 - 01:11 pm.

          Yeah, the country is doing great economically. That is because Donald Trump inherited – let me repeat that for you so it can sink in, inherited – a great economy when he came along. An economy that the Obama administration rescued from a recession and brought back to life. We’re less than two years into Trump’s administration. What’s he doing? Cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans while giving minuscule cuts to everyone else, raising the military budget, deregulating everything they can, adding to the deficit, and Paul Ryan still has time to target Social Security and Medicare (his Ayn Rand-ian wet dream) before he leaves Congress.

          Does any of this sound familiar to you? Tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulating everything in sight, increased military spending … these are all things the George W Bush administration spent years doing that resulted in Bush handing Obama a tanking economy.

          As for Senator Flake – he can do all the grandstanding he wants. He’s not running for reelection so he doesn’t have to worry about any potential political consequences, like Collins and Murkowski. Flake didn’t stand up to Trump and the Republican leadership when it counted.

      • Submitted by Jim Roth on 09/14/2018 - 06:16 pm.

        Talk may be brave but it’s still cheap. Votes count.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/14/2018 - 02:24 pm.

    It is always refreshing when a politician becomes unencumbered from the party dogma to really say what they believe. When all along that is the person the constituents really want representing them. If it weren’t for party dogma what would we ever do for divisive wedge issues and no gridlock? There is way too much working for the party and not enough working for the entire country. Now there is no progress and nothing but campaigning for the next election. The time between elections gives everyone time to sort out the criminal from the good guys of which there are far too few good guys these days.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 09/14/2018 - 04:20 pm.

      When Joe Lieberman became similarly unencumbered, the Democrats were so enraged he had to leave the party.

      Flake wasn’t booted by the GOP, he hit the eject button because he knew the voters would do the booting.

      • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/14/2018 - 10:00 pm.

        Flakes left the party because the party left him with all of its craziness. A party where no one can say what they really believe without retribution from a crazy man. That isn’t a party, it is a dictatorship. A dictatorship that is about to meet its end because of unmitigated corruption. Soon the party will swirling around the swamp drain.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/17/2018 - 09:28 am.

        “When Joe Lieberman became similarly unencumbered, the Democrats were so enraged he had to leave the party.”

        Joe Lieberman left the Democratic Party when he lost a primary election in Connecticut. The voters did to him what Flake assumed the voters of Arizona would do to him.

        Big ol’ difference, if you have any interest in facts.

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