In a recent campaign stop visit to New Hampshire, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) stoked speculation for a possible presidential run during a speech at the “Politics and Eggs” breakfast in Manchester, a political tradition for future presidential contenders.
When asked by an audience member if he would consider a run, Flake said, “It has not been in my plans to run for president, but I have not ruled it out.”
In an interview Monday with Boston Public Radio, Flake said he went to New Hampshire to bring a message of “hope and optimism” to the Republican party. Presidential contender or not, Flake has distanced himself from the Trump administration and hopes to reaffirm the GOP’s reputation as one of “decency.” (Flake plans to retire after his Senate term is over.)
The following excerpt from Flake's interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
MARGERY: For people who have had issues with the president here in Massachusetts, where Trump is not that popular, people laud Gen. McMaster there, and Gen. Mattis, Tillerson…
FLAKE: At least an adult in the room, right.
MARGERY: There’s concern now with this firing of people that those people that were that measuring influence on the president are going to be gone soon.
FLAKE: That’s concerning to all of us, and it should be. I wouldn’t expect the president to put together a team of rivals like Lincoln did, but what it seems we’re getting close to now is a team of rivals that just competes with each other as to who can ingratiate themselves to the president more — and that’s dangerous, particularly in the national security area. We don’t need people who will confirm and enable the president’s worst instincts, and I’m very concerned about that.
JIM: Let’s talk about somebody who didn’t ingratiate himself: former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The same morning the president announced his potential one-on-one meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Rex Tillerson was saying we’re not ready for a one-on-one meeting. Did President Trump do the right thing, and he is ready for a one-on-one with Kim Jong Un?
FLAKE: Certainly not ready for a one-on-one meeting. These one-on-one meetings can be successful, and when President Obama became president or was running, he talked about meeting with Fidel Castro and [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. These meetings can be helpful, but there is so much prep work that goes into meetings like this, particularly with someone who has nuclear weapons. And so, I think what Rex Tillerson was voicing was that one, we’ve got to make sure that the message conveyed by the South Koreans was actually the message the North Koreans wanted them to convey, and then two, you’ve got to sit down and say, alright, what if the president does take action here, what does it do to our alliances? What does it do to our nonproliferation regime? What does it do on this level and that level — there’s so much that has to go into it, so the notion that you could have a meeting like this as soon as May is really, really pushing it. I’m glad that Tillerson pushed back, I hope that whoever replaces him — if it’s Pompeo, that they push back similarly. We need that pushback.
MARGERY: Pompeo is much more hawkish, certainly, and then you have John Bolton being mentioned as a possible cabinet-level person, and he’s a national security-type guy, and he’s someone who just wrote in the Wall Street Journal that we could have a military non-nuclear war with North Korea, and talking about how it could happen.
FLAKE: Yeah, I am concerned about some of these appointments. That particular appointment is not subject to Senate confirmation, so we won’t be able to ask the questions of the national security advisor that we get to ask the potential Secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo. I’m assuming that the questions we’re talking about now will be front and center in those hearings with Mike Pompeo. I am very concerned. I think we’ve had a lot of comfort in having Rex Tillerson there. Say what you want about his abilities as Secretary of State, he actually brought a measured, reasonable tone, and a lot of expertise there. And boy, I think all of us really pray for his help daily, and hope that he will stick it out. John Kelly, there are rumors there as well about his longevity. I think a lot of us are very concerned.
JIM: You were a ‘Gang of Eight’ guy on immigration, right?
FLAKE: I was.
JIM: That was Republicans and Democrats working together … is there any hope at all that something can be done in this Congress at least on DREAMers … Your laughing meaning no chance, right?
FLAKE: What I proposed after the failure of, you know we had a ‘Gang of Six’ trying to negotiate a bipartisan deal. It looked like, for a brief time, that we had the president’s agreement. He sat down with us and said, "Hey, I’m not the expert here. You guys are. You write the bill. I’ll sign it." And that was the Tuesday Trump. The Thursday Trump was after his advisors and others had gotten to him and said, "No, you can’t agree to this."
Then the president made the comments about the African countries, the really vulgar comment that made it really impossible to address one of the pillars, the diversity Visa that the president insisted on addressing. So what I’ve proposed is a three for three measure: three years of extension of DACA — codify it so the Congress will make it constitutional, in exchange for three years of the president’s budget request on the border. That, we were told two days ago, that the White House was all of a sudden considering again — by the afternoon we were told no they’re not, so we just don’t know.
On this one, I will give it to the president on DACA, I believe his instincts, and when he speaks candidly on this, his instincts are better than the advice that he gets. I think if he was left to himself, he would want and he would allow the Congress to put together a bipartisan deal that would protect these kids, but there are so many other groups playing this game now that it’s virtually impossible for this Congress to get a bipartisan agreement.
JIM: Trump’s flips on issues, whether it’s guns or immigration, are they a function of him being persuaded by advisors to go in a different direction from where you think his gut would take him, or is it possible he doesn’t understand the complexity of these issues? He was going to tax rich people for awhile there on the campaign, he used to support government-funded health insurance. He said let’s have a clean bill on DACA — a lot of people think he didn’t know what a “clean bill” was. Is that an unfair criticism?
FLAKE: I don’t know, other than to say that it’s very difficult as a member of Congress to deal with this. The president has certainly flexible principles but fixed habits, and it makes it really difficult for the legislative branch to navigate that. You never know what you’ve negotiated, and whether what you’ve talked to the president about on Tuesday will hold by Thursday. I don’t know how to … I’m not going to psychoanalyze or figure it out, I just know it’s difficult for us.
MARGERY: We had the school walkouts last week, we had this march last week, the March For Life following the Parkland shooting … You have previously gotten A and A+ ratings from the NRA, but there seems to be some movement now, post-Parkland massacre. How hard is it to go up against the NRA? Do you think there’s going to be some real movement here?
FLAKE: For a Republican running in a primary, it is difficult. I think we see that reflected, certainly. But that’s not to say that every Republican lines up with the NRA. I’ve always been supportive of the no-fly-no-buy — if you’re on a no-fly list you shouldn’t be able to purchase a weapon. People like Pat Toomey, a good conservative Republican from Pennsylvania, introduced Toomey-Manchin (background check proposal), which the NRA opposed. It’s not like every Republican lines up every time, but they do have considerable sway, and it looks as if they’ve had considerable sway at the White House as well, because after that meeting, the president changed his position on the age limit.
JIM: You used to get a very high grade from the NRA … You’re now supporting something they don’t like, you’re supporting raising the age to be able to purchase assault weapons and high-capacity magazines to 21. So what happened?
FLAKE: Well one, the age limit, I didn’t even know that there was an issue there. I didn’t realize that somebody couldn’t purchase a handgun but could purchase an AR-15 when they’re the age of 19. I didn’t realize there was such a thing as a bump stock. I think a lot of us learned that. On some things like no-fly no-buy, I’ve always been in a different position than the NRA, but when you have events like the Parkland shooting, you think there are some issues where we can make a difference. With regard to high-capacity magazines, that one is a tough one. I have people whispering in my ear, friends of mine, relatives and others. I’m from a rural area. I grew up on a ranch. That’s a tough issue for me, but I’ve come down and said, I think that we can, without doing violence to the Second Amendment, limit the capacity of these magazines. Some people will point out, well, you can have 3D printing of these same magazines, and okay, but let’s do this anyway. I think we can make a difference on some of these things, and I think we should.
JIM: You went to New Hampshire and spoke at the New England Council’s Politics and Eggs series, and got a standing ovation. We’ve heard you say you’d consider a run in 2020. It’s too early right now, but what’s your message to your fellow Republicans and other Granite-staters when you were up there in New Hampshire?
FLAKE: My message was, let’s put country over party. I’m concerned about my party, certainly. I think that we’ve got to appeal to a broader electorate if we’re going to have electoral success in the future. But I’m more concerned about my country. To the extent that we play this tribal politics that we play right now, it’s bad for the country. You mentioned the bill that we did a couple of years ago, the bipartisan immigration bill, it’s tough to see controversial issues like that being dealt with effectively in congress because we’ve become too tribal. My message was, “We will get through this, and when we do, here’s the steps we need to take,” and I tried to outline some of those steps. I tried to give a message of hope and optimism that I think Republicans want to hear. They want to know that we can still be a decent party, because we’re a more decent people than Washington portrays us to be.