Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., says a primary challenge in 2020 to President Trump isn't off the table.
"That's not in my plans, but I don't rule anything out," the frequent Trump critic told NPR's Robert Siegel in an interview airing Thursday on All Things Considered.
"I do think he will have a challenge. Most certainly there will be an independent challenge," Flake predicted. "If you have Donald Trump, if he still can manage to carry his base, as he calls it, that could be and should be enough to get him renominated, but it certainly won't be enough to get him re-elected."
Asked whether Trump could face some kind of mass uprising within the party ranks during the 2020 nominating process, Flake said he wasn't convinced the president is necessarily going to run again. Trump's approval ratings have hit record lows in his first year, and multiple reports have described how frustrated and unhappy the president is by the confines of his office.
"Well, we're assuming he is running for re-election," the Arizona senator said. "I don't think that's a safe assumption. He may not. I'm not among those who think that he's going to be impeached or removed from office, but I am among those who question whether or not he'll give it a go the next time around."
"But if he does, I do think he'll have a challenge within the Republican Party," Flake continued. "I'm not sure that challenge will succeed, but it may be time for an independent — particularly if the Democratic Party continues to go further to the left. There is a huge swath of voters I think in the middle that are going to be looking for something else."
Flake announced last year that he wasn't running for re-election after facing a tough primary challenge from a candidate who has criticized him for not being behind Trump enough. Trump has also lashed out at Flake, calling him "toxic" and "weak" on border security.
Flake has indeed not been shy in sharing his deep concerns about the president. He wrote a book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, in which he decried his fellow Republicans for making a "Faustian bargain" in nominating Trump while abandoning many core conservative principles like free trade and glossing over his controversial stands like birtherism.
When Flake announced his retirement, he gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, lamenting that, "We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks; the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency; the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve. None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal."
Flake also said at that time that he would be making a series of speeches about the critical importance of facts and truth to American democracy — something Flake and many others say Trump and his White House often flout.
The Arizona Republican's Senate term runs through the end of this year.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake has not been shy when it comes to criticizing his own party. In fact he filled a book with those criticisms. In "Conscience Of A Conservative," which was published last year, he railed against his party for embracing nationalism, populism and xenophobia. In October, he went further to say that he no longer sees a place for traditional conservatives like himself within the GOP. He announced that he will not run for re-election this year.
Well, we've been wanting to speak with Senator Flake about his views of his party at this moment of transition, and we have him today. Welcome to the program.
JEFF FLAKE: Hey. Thanks for having me on.
SIEGEL: I suppose I should ask you first; do you still view the Republican Party as your party? Do you think you'll continue your affiliation when you leave office?
FLAKE: I expect to. This has been my party for my entire life. And I do think that someday this fever will cool, and we'll be back to being the party of limited government and free trade, immigration and all those things that made the party what it is.
SIEGEL: But you've described recent Republican rallies as - your phrase - spasms of a dying party. Is the Republican Party dying in its present condition?
FLAKE: I do think that unless we change course, we will. We can't continue simply to drill down on the base. You can win an election here or there. I think in California, Pete Wilson proved, you know, you can rile up the base on an issue like immigration and win an election.
SIEGEL: Governor Wilson of California - Republican governor, supported Prop 187, which was very anti-immigrant, and, as you say, riled up the base but cost Republicans Latino votes for the next couple of decades.
FLAKE: Right. In the end, we've only had one statewide Republican elected in California since. And it may be a generation before we do.
SIEGEL: Why weaken the already small number of Republican senators who publicly speak out as you do critically of Donald Trump? Why not stay and fight?
FLAKE: Well, if I could see a place and a way to win a Republican primary without embracing Trumpism, then I might. But I can't see that happening right now. Like I said, I think the fever will cool.
FLAKE: But it won't by August of next year.
SIEGEL: You would face a very tough primary if you ran.
FLAKE: Yes. I mean, I would have to agree with the president's policies, many of which I don't agree with, and condone some of the behavior that I simply can't condone.
SIEGEL: Does the breach between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon in any way change your calculations of how solid the opposition to you would be in a primary in Arizona?
FLAKE: I don't know. I think it's still - I don't think Donald Trump will completely turn on a dime away from these nationalist policies that Steve Bannon promoted. I think, you know, Steve Bannon kind of exploited a lot of what the president had already said. So I'm not sure there's enough of a difference between them.
SIEGEL: You're attaching an ism to Donald Trump. But actually, in most votes in the Senate, you've been a loyal Republican voter, not that much of a maverick. Is it the substance of Donald Trump's politics, or is it his pugnacious attitude that puts you off so?
FLAKE: Well, I'm a conservative first and foremost, and I've been trying to repeal and replace Obamacare for - you know, for years. And before Donald Trump came along, I'd been a proponent of tax reform for years. Most of the other things that we vote on in the Senate in the first year of a presidential administration are personnel issues, filling out a cabinet. And I've always felt that a president ought to get the people that they want unless there's a quick disqualifying reason. So a lot of the things that I disagree with the president on on policy have never come to a Senate vote - the travel ban or some of the immigration reform measures.
SIEGEL: If, though, there really is a traditional conservatism that could succeed in the Republican Party, how do you understand what happened in 2016 when more than a dozen rivals to Donald Trump failed to connect with GOP primary voters, most of them espousing the traditional conservative politics that many of - which you would support enthusiastically?
FLAKE: Yes, well, populism is called populism for a reason. It can be popular. And if you have a figure like Donald Trump who can ride on that - and he did very successfully - you can win elections. And he did. I just don't think that you can govern that way. A lot of this was anger and resentment, and that's just not a governing philosophy. You can only go so far with that.
SIEGEL: Is it Trumpism, though? I mean, wasn't he tapping into the same kind of populist anger that powered the Tea Party? Wasn't he addressing people in the way that Sarah Palin did when she ran for vice president? Wasn't there some background within the Republican Party to what he capitalized on?
FLAKE: You bet. And I explain that in my book - that this was an issue not just starting with Trump but really, you know, continuing from 2000 when I was elected first to the House. I could see this kind of populist movement starting. And it certainly has gone a lot further than I thought it would and certainly further than you can go and actually still govern, and that's the problem.
SIEGEL: From what you're saying and from your criticisms of Donald Trump, I assume that you think he should not be renominated by the Republican Party. I assume you expect there'll be a challenge to him. Would you be part of that challenge? Would you be possibly a candidate in that challenge?
FLAKE: That's not in my plans, but I don't rule anything out. I do think he will have a challenge. Most certainly there will be an independent challenge. If you have Donald Trump, if he still can manage to carry his base, as he calls it, that could be and should be enough to get him renominated. But it certainly won't be enough to get him re-elected. On the other side, the Democrats...
SIEGEL: Let's stick with that for a second, though, because the last Republican convention was kind of odd in that the home state governor host, John Kasich, didn't show up at the arena. What would happen if a - if the Trump base as he would describe it would get him nominated and there were a large number of Republicans who dissented from that? Would there be boycotts? Would there be a split? What could happen in 2020?
FLAKE: Well, I mean, we're assuming that he is running for re-election. I don't think that that's a safe assumption. He may not. I'm not among those who think that he's going to be impeached or removed from office, but I am among those who questions whether or not he'll give it a go the next time around. But if he does, I do think that he'll have a challenge within the Republican Party. I'm not sure that that challenge will succeed, but it may be time for an independent, particularly if the Democratic Party continues to go further to the left. There is a huge swath of voters I think in the middle that are going to be looking for something else.
SIEGEL: Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
FLAKE: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.